Zimbabwe Watch

Romania’s Ceaușescu, Mugabe role model?

The response of Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe to challenges to his leadership is, in many ways, similar to that of his former friend and ally, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu.

Over the last couple of years The Intelligence Bulletin has been following developments in Zimbabwe closely while the country continued spiralling towards failed state status under Mugabe’s leadership – despite much initial promise after he led his country to independence in 1980.

Mugabe’s response cannot be ignored by South Africa because what happens there is taking its toll and has direct consequences for South Africa.


Previously we, in passing, compared Mugabe’s responses to criticism and internal challenges to that of Romania’s Ceaușescu. Recently others have made similar comparisons. The similarities are striking.

Ceaușescu’s 25-year-long dictatorship came to a bloody end on Christmas Day 1989 when he and his unpopular wife, Elena, controversially elevated to the position of deputy prime minister, were executed by firing squad. They had been found guilty on charges of genocide, damage to the national economy and abuse of power by a hastily convened military tribunal.

Many would argue that the same charges will stick to Mugabe.

By no means do we suggest that the end of the Mugabe rule will be bloody, far from it. Violence and blood-letting are, however, real possibilities if and when the inevitable post-Mugabe succession battle commences in earnest.


The tragedy, or so it seems, is that Mugabe is not taking the lessons to heart that his disgraced Romanian ally also failed to recognise.

Instead of accommodating legitimate grievances – mostly consequences of reckless political decisions by an increasingly reclusive leader and his patronage network – like Ceaușescu did, Mugabe responds with more suppression, intimidation and retribution.

During the early 1980’s, amid a time of social and economic malaise largely the result of his own communist-based misrule, Ceaușescu introduced strict compulsory austerity measures in an attempt to repay foreign debts.

It included many basic goods, like gas, heat and food being rationed – drastically reducing an already low standard of living in Romania.

Although Ceaușescu successfully liquidated Romania’s entire national debt, he also fuelled more discontent among Romania’s population.

Fast forward and the similarities in Zimbabwe are striking.

Desperate to save the little forex still available and in a despairing but futile attempt  to revive Zimbabwe’s ailing manufacturing sector, in July 2016 the Mugabe regime introduced the highly controversial Statutory Instrument 64 of 2016, blocking imports of a long list of basic goods, including food, from South Africa.

Not only did it bring more hardship for Zimbabweans, but it triggered a widespread show of discontent of mass public protests and stay-away actions across the country at a level never experienced before.

Protesters have vowed to repeat, even scale up, anti-­government demonstrations and make the country ungovernable if Mugabe does not announce plans to relinquish power by 31 August 2016. This, despite threats of harsh retaliation measures by Mugabe.

Role of security forces    

Romania’s ubiquitous secret police, the Securitate, which was the main suppressor of popular dissension and frequently and violently quashed political disagreement – as in Zimbabwe – ultimately proved powerless to stop a popular uprising.

In Romania rank-and-file members of the military switched, almost unanimously, from supporting the tyrannical regime to backing the protesting population.

The same might just happen in Zimbabwe, particularly with the late payment of security force salaries as state coffers remain close to empty.

Many a dictator has met his fate when losing the support of the security establishment whose loyalty is often based on handsome remuneration rather than blind devotion to political leadership.

In Zimbabwe a significant crack appeared in recent weeks when war veterans turned on Mugabe.

According to the editor of the Zimbabwe weekly, The Independent, Mugabe is facing “an endgame of tragic dimensions. If the war veterans join forces with the national resistance movement driven by civic groups and backed by churches and opposition parties, Mugabe, already on the ropes and hanging onto power by [his] fingernails, could soon face his Waterloo.”

In Ceaușescu’s Romania free speech was limited and opinions that did not favour the Communist Party were forbidden. Mugabe follows the same trend, responding to the war veterans in the only way he is comfortable with, “severe” threats and promises. His wife, Grace Mugabe, chipped in by warning the veterans that their farms, mostly expropriated from whites, could be taken away from them.

These veterans were the hard core of the political force, which helped deliver him election victories, especially in rural areas, for the last 16 years.

They also played a role in some of the violence against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the run-off of the 2008 elections after MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the first round.

Role of the cloth

The actions of a church pastor in Romania, László Tőkés, speaking out against state transgressions and Ceaușescu’s tyranny set off a chain of events that led to the eventual toppling of the seemingly invincible Ceaușescu dictatorship.

This slice of Romanian history also has a familiar ring to it in present-day Zimbabwe as part-time pastor Evan Mawarire with his hashtag ThisFlag campaign also had “an unexpected effect” upon the public atmosphere in Zimbabwe.  

Mugabe, as usual, threatened and intimidated the clergyman, warning him not to dabble in politics, by telling him: “We know how to deal with our enemies who have been trying all along to effect regime change.” 

He had Mawarire picked up by his security personnel and paraded in court. But, similar to his Romanian colleague, pastor Mawarire pledged to continue with peaceful protests.

Mugabe’s intimidation tactic, however, forced Mawarire to seek temporary asylum for him and his family in South Africa.

The last chapter in this stand-off is still to be written, but chances are that, as in the case of the in Romanian pastor, his expressions of dissatisfaction with an untenable situation will soon be taken over by a nationwide outcry.

Blame game

In a vain last attempt to quell the popular Romanian uprising, Ceaușescu, in a televised address to the nation, blamed “interference of foreign forces in Romania's internal affairs” and an “external aggression on Romania’s sovereignty” as being the root cause for the deteriorating situation in the country.

It sounds all too familiar, and is similar to Mugabe forever blaming foreign forces, particularly the West, to divert attention from his country’s woes, largely caused by his own misdirected policies.

In admonishing the war veterans, Mugabe, not unexpectedly, claimed that Western countries had infiltrated the veterans’ association to destabilise the country. According to him, “Some of these rebels from our war veteran ranks have been working with secret agents from the American, United Kingdom and French embassies here.”

The American embassy in Harare responded by announcing that America has increased support to Zimbabwe with another US$41 million in aid. According to the American ambassador, “the United States is proud to be the largest donor to Zimbabwe”. Harping on the same theme Mugabe also claimed that the hashtag ThisFlag initiative and its leader are sponsored by “dark, foreign forces”. 

Noose is tightening          

As the noose, politically speaking, is tightening, Mugabe would be well advised to take note of the old saying that history does not repeat itself, but its lessons are ignored at one’s one peril.

by Garth Cilliers

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