Jim Matopo | As the frenzy of short-term political infighting heats up in Harare, this could be a good time for more reflective Zimbabweans, including many in the Diaspora, to consider what we can learn from the antics of Trump and Erdogan in their respective countries.
Probably few Zimbabweans, with the possible exception of Bob, think much of the current President of the United States. He seems to be a shallow, vain, arrogant and narcissistic man with little real knowledge outside the field of real estate and casino management.How he got elected is a mystery to most of us, but nevertheless he did. But what is interesting is how the American constitutional system has prevented him from implementing his more crazy projects- the Mexican wall, the ban on all Muslim visitors, the reckless repeal of health care, the unthinking repeal of useful trade deals, the appointment of a flawed national security advisor. After 100 days in office his implementation of half-baked pet projects amounts to precisely zero. This is because the split of power between the executive, legislative and legal branches of the American state, wisely laid down by the Founding Fathers, prevents this type of impulsive and dangerous action.
Take the opposite example- that of Erdogan, the would-be dictator of Turkey. After arresting 40000 of his compatriots and sacking 120000 public servants, he has managed to persuade his countrymen by a narrow majority, possibly aided by some judicious election-rigging, to dismantle the existing system of diffused power and to concentrate it instead in his own hands. As he installs himself in his new thousand-room palace, we can already see the way things are likely to go- repression of civil liberties, compliant judges, sharpened conflict with the Kurds, imperialist interventions in the Middle East, the death penalty for his enemies and a general cosying-up to other “strong” leaders such as Putin. It is difficult to view the short to medium term future of Turkey with anything but alarm.
The lessons for Zimbabwe are clear. The country has already had too many decades of the Erdogan- style “strongman” government, a system which has reduced ordinary citizens to the level of having to pay their bills in goats. When Bob goes, it would be a tragedy if he were to be replaced with another Erdogan- type figure; Africa as a whole has already had more than enough experience of this type of government.
Clearly now is the time to be preparing for a radical shift in future rules of government in the country, learning from and applying the wisdom of the American founding fathers. The aim must be to ensure that even if a Trump-like figure emerges from popular polls he or she is not allowed to be in a position to inflict material damage on the body politic.
How can this be achieved? We have already discussed the primary need for the creation of a stable and corruption- free judicial system and civil service- the essential backbone of a healthy state. This needs to be complemented by a political system that diffuses power to the maximum extent compatible with efficient functioning of government.
Of course, this is not a popular idea with politicians of any hue; the bad ones recognise that centralised power is the best way to get their own hands on national wealth, while the good ones delude themselves into thinking that they need centralised power to achieve noble aims for the people. In fact, as the famous nineteenth century historian Lord Acton recognised, “all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. So the aim of wise constitution-builders should be to spread power thinly, thus ensuring that corruption is kept to a manageable minimum (it will never be entirely eliminated as long as human nature is what it is).
How might this work in Zimbabwe? Firstly, we need to recognise that the existing constitutional order has been so corrupted and distorted by the current regime that it is in no way fit for purpose as a model for future legislative development. This makes life easier- Zimbabweans can and should plan their new constitution from scratch, and Zimbabweans abroad, who are hopefully freer from the petty distraction of day-to day political infighting, should play an important role in this process. It is a process which I am sure has already begun in many discussion groups but which is now becoming urgent. Maybe the time has come for like-minded discussion groups in South Africa, UK, Belgium and elsewhere to get together to hold a “constitutional conference in exile”. Big political names should be excluded at this stage -they are part of the problem not part of the solution. Once the ideas are fleshed out in a common-sense and concrete way, the more sensible politicians will start hitching up to the wagon train; the Erdogan-type figures will never be interested.