Mugabe: A charismatic authoritarian

HARARE - The notion of a charismatic authoritarian is, at first blush, perplexing because it is somewhat oxymoronic — a charismatic ruler ought to induce endearment than fear.
But reading Laura Mixon’s treatise on Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan ruler, one begins to appreciate this awkward nexus.

In parts, I found Mixon’s work and application of the charismatic authoritarian theory to Chavez quite striking in the similarities to the political character of Robert Mugabe and the Zanu PF regime.
Mugabe has been held as charismatic.

Charisma, according to Max Weber, may serve as grounds for authority in that a person with a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least exceptional powers or qualities.

Mugabe has often been distinguished from ordinary Zimbabweans by Zanu PF supporters through transcendental invocations.

Tony Gara, now late, enjoined Zimbabweans in 1990 to be grateful to God for giving us his other son, Mugabe.

In 2007, Oppah Muchinguri even threatened to mobilise a protest and strip naked if Mugabe, the “God-given leader,” was dislodged from power.  

In recent months, similar remarks, albeit without threat of indecent exposure, have been made by Vice President Joice Mujuru and Reverend Johannes Ndanga who claimed Mugabe was anointed as leader at the age of 10.

No evidence has been provided to support this extraordinary claim.

Correspondingly, Mugabe’s elite have been amusingly subservient. Obert Mpofu declared himself Mugabe’s most “loyal son”, and only last week, it was reported Information minister Webster Shamu even regretted his own parentage: wished Mugabe was his father.
Jonathan Moyo, once a strident critic of Mugabe but now just as obsequious, remarked years ago that comparisons with God were prevalent because like God, probably Mugabe demanded absolute respect and loyalty from his supporters.  

Mugabe has reinforced such perception by portraying himself as messianic.

On his 89th birthday, he proclaimed he had a “divine task” from God to serve his nation.

Hence, a charismatic authoritarian is held or depicts himself as possessing extraordinary qualities.

A charismatic authoritarian also employs legitimising myths or strategies through the invocation of a glorious past.

Using the past for legitimising purposes, he evokes memories and establishes well-regarded past epochs.

Zanu PF has invoked the history of the liberation struggle with nauseating frequency in an attempt to legitimise exclusive rule.  

Bergona Aretxaga, explaining the appropriation of such liberationist narratives, pointed out the resort to history is meant to re-actualise the past by engendering new feats of heroism.

National liberation movements hail past acts of bravery in order to encourage similar actions in the present.

Years after independence and upon realising decline in its popularity, Zanu PF created the ruse that Zimbabwe is under the threat of re-colonisation — hence the slogan “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again.”

Under the moniker of the so-called “Third Chimurenga”, Zanu PF drew on its liberation credentials to portray itself as the only pedigreed agent to fend off these supposed neo-colonialists.   

And with some success among the undiscerning, Zanu PF has mobilised support around this mythical war.
A charismatic authoritarian reinforces a crisis perception, the severity of which he manipulates.

A crisis, Mixon points out, places perceptual blinders on the people affected, limits their sense of self-efficacy, and make them more receptive to a charismatic leader.

The more helplessness people feel in the face of stressful circumstances, the more likely they are to look for solutions in the charismatic leader. The crisis perception fully captures Zanu PF’s sanctions narrative.

The sanctions narrative is premised on “scapegoating.” The chosen scapegoat represents a shared enemy against whom the charismatic leader fights.

Mugabe and Zanu PF cite Britain, the European Union and the United States as enemies and scapegoats for Zimbabwe’s crisis. Mugabe and Zanu PF take no responsibility.

Charismatic messages are more emotional than rational, Mixon notes.

They are delivered through simplification of complex issues. Simplification takes place through the way cause and effects are laid out: the bad guys caused these problems, and we the good guys are the ones who can solve them.

Mugabe’s following suggests many remain bamboozled by a charismatic authoritarian who has, however, failed the country. - Conrad Nyamutata

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