Mugabe & the Myth of a Benign Dictator

Why one man never holds the power we all perceive

By Dr Foluke Ifejola Adebisi - 23rd November 2017


At the time of writing, the non-coup in Zimbabwe is just over 24 hours old. It has been interesting watching the international news coverage of but this is DEFINITELY NOT A COUP. The most striking thing is to see news anchors ask if Zimbabweans are jubilant at the demise of Mugabe’s power. This accords very much with the western tradition of locating African state power in a person or one individual. The demise of that individual would indicate a shift of power, a change of things for the better, hence the request for jubilant African expression. Or to paraphrase western commentators, ‘Will there be dancing in the streets of Harare tonight?’ As if all Africans do is dance in the streets.

The idea that one person – a dictator – can hold state power is actually unfounded.  These ideas are contrary to the evidence of history and very much affected by the lens through which Africa is viewed and  the lens through which we view ourselves. Political power is always held in a system, by a sector or sectors of society. Said system always benefits the powerful who uphold and maintain the system for their own benefit. The names and frames we use to describe the systems differ from nation to nation. The qualities and character of the systems may change from polity to polity, but at the end of the day power resides in the system and not a person.

Presidents. Queens. Kings. Emirs. Prime ministers. Heads of state. Dictators. There are no true dictators. The dictator is a cipher for the system. When those who benefit from the system are threatened, the cipher is swapped, and the system remains. When those who benefit from Mugabe’s rule begin to see their power being diminished, they remove him (no, this is not a coup!), replace him, and the system remains.

According to McDonald Lewanika, researcher and writer for LSE: the ‘not-a-coup’ shores up the establishment, evidenced by ‘the factional stance that the Commander of the Defense Forces, General Constantine Chiwenga, took, which demonstrated that this intervention is not altruistic, but rather a clever, yet dangerous manoeuvre to shore up his precarious position.’

The system remains.

These other examples concur:

  • Charles Taylor replaces ‘dictator’ Samuel Doe
  • Buhari is replaced by Babangida who is replaced (sort of) by Sani Abacha (Who can forget the era of ‘my fellow Nigerians’?)
  • Gaddafi (enough said)
  • Idi Amin is succeeded by Yoweri Museveni

The system remains.

Also interesting in this “So Not A Coup”, is the use of the military. Since independence from colonial rule, coups have been a frequently utilised means of governmental change in African states. Their use has been on the decline. The post-colonial involvement of the military in African politics reflects the persistent violent nature of politics in the region. From the colonial to the postcolonial, because African politics is concerned with power and not governance. As long as violence and power are integral to African politics ‘the specialists of warfare’ will continue as specialists and strongmen in politics. Irrespective of who fronts the system, the system remains. Irrespective of what name you call them. Dictator. Statesman. Saviour. The system remains.

As long as we presume political power is located in one person and not a system, nothing will change. The system remains. As long as politics is told as a tale of power and rule, and not governance, freedom, equality and development, nothing will change, the system remains.

We will continue to speak the myth of the African dictator or saviour  instead of developing ourselves and developing the people. That would be the true African tragedy, that the system remains.

This essay has been republished with the permission of Dr Foluke Adebisi of,

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Dr Foluke Ifejola Adebisi

Dr Adebisi is a Pan African lawyer, teacher and researcher who seeks new ways of interpreting the African experience in order to challenge it's misconceptions and static ideology.

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