Picture from AFP
Picture from AFP
Here's a conversation that occurred Saturday morning at a coffee shop in Johannesburg South Africa.
Person A: "What is it about West Africa and coups?"
Person B: "Yeah, Niger is the latest I read. Another African leader bites the dust."
Person A: "I don't know much about that part of the continent but isn’t he meant to be some kind of dictator – who only wanted to hang onto power and didn’t believe in democracy and freedom of speech?"
Person B: "Well the guys who've taken over say they are going to restore democratic processes. Last I read ordinary citizens were celebrating, glad the coup happened."
Person A: "Interesting. So – why aren't our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe like that? They complain about Robert Mugabe and yet they seem to put up with the old man."
Person B: "Fear they'll be killed for even thinking along those lines. Maybe it’s because they are such a passive lot – weak perhaps? All I know is if it were Jacob Zuma behaving like that for thirty years we South Africans would have dealt with him a long time ago!"
The two gentlemen are allowed to express their views – even if one disagrees with some of their deductions. At least freedom of speech in South Africa is still encouraged – unlike some parts of the continent.
But it got me thinking – what is the difference between the Niger coup plotters in West Africa and the allegedly "passive" Zimbabweans down in southern Africa?
I've heard the theory that Zimbabweans are too passive a people and so afraid to speak out against President Mugabe because they will be killed. But is this true? And if it is, is it the main reason?
They did fight a liberation war that ended 30 years ago – and they won their freedom from white colonial rule. That took blood, sweat, courage and guts. It was no small feat. Zimbabweans are a tough people.
But if you believe the media reports, then Zimbabwe's poor majority have been to hell and back. Close to three million Zimbabweans will need food aid this year, civil servants are on strike over pay again, opposition supporters have endured years of oppression allegedly perpetrated by members of Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, and the last election was anything but free and fair.
Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change and current prime minister, was badly beaten in 2007 by the police for speaking out against Mugabe and calling for democratic change in the country.
Surely people's patience must be wearing thin by now. If Tsvangirai is right – and an overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans are simply fed up with how Mugabe continues to run the country as president, then why do they continue to put up with the state of affairs?
Why hasn't a Niger happened in Zimbabwe?
Perhaps President Mugabe still enjoys a fair amount of support – more than the Movement for Democratic Change or Tsvangirai thinks?
Maybe Zimbabweans, those who agree with Tsvangirai, are just tired, worn into submission after years of repression. They feel fighting for democratic freedom is just not worth losing their lives over.
There are countless stories of people who have mysteriously died in dubious car accidents over the years. Some dismiss these rumours as urban legends, but others say, "where there is smoke, there is fire".
My humble opinion is that I think the military is still firmly behind Mugabe – at least things appear to be that way. They have nothing to gain yet from upsetting the apple cart. It's clear they don't support Tsvangirai – some of them even refused at one time to salute him as the prime minister of the country.
Mugabe's critics say he is keeping senior generals happy by rewarding them with farms, businesses, diamond mines you name it – anything to sweeten the deal and keep them on his side.
But surely Mamadou Tandja, the ousted leader of Niger had done the same? Let's face it, every leader finds a way to reward his or her loyalists – and Africa is no exception.
Maybe Niger's coup leaders, who are calling themselves the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy wanted more and Tandja failed to see that? They say they plan to turn Niger into "an example of democracy and of good governance".
I have my doubts. How long will it take before they start plundering the countries resources?
But back to my question – why has a Niger not happened in Zimbabwe yet?
Are an overwhelming majority, including those from Mugabe's own party, terrifyingly afraid of him as some analysts have suggested? What is 86 year old President Mugabe doing "right" to ensure he stays in power?