Mugabe looms large in Africa not just because he is its most notorious current tyrant. The 84-year-old is also the last of Africa's great liberation leaders a line that began with Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, the first sub-Saharan African to win independence for his nation in 1957, and spread across the continent to finally embrace southern Africa in the 1980s and early '90s. For many liberation leaders, the struggle continued to define them long after it was won, and this tendency to see the future in the terms of the past has led even the most revered down some blind alleys. In South Africa, for example, President Nelson Mandela once allowed memories of imperialism to color his views on his country's rampant violent crime, the "encouragement and commission" of which he blamed on white supremacists. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe's impatience with the slow pace of land redistribution led him to endorse the violent seizure of white farms, which quickly caused the collapse of the agriculture-based economy.
History hangs heavy on Africa in other ways, too. Aid was, in a sense, the compensation offered by a new generation of white Europeans for the sins of their imperial forefathers. But for all the poverty it alleviated and lives it saved, aid was also a distortion free food diminished the need to farm, free money diminished the need for efficiency, and both diminished the need for self-reliance or entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, a revolutionary spirit simultaneously led directly to corruption and autocracy. Many rebel movements took as the righteous reward of struggle their country, its new foreign funding and an everlasting hold on both. And then there is the African brotherhood of longevity. Gabonese President Omar Bongo, who has ruled for a world-beating 41 years, told reporters at the A.U. summit: "He [Mugabe] was elected, he took an oath, and he is here with us, so he is President and we cannot ask him more."
Many think Africa can. The emerging generation of leaders wants Mugabe and his fellow dinosaurs to go. Last year Sudanese telecoms billionaire Mo Ibrahim inaugurated a $5 million prize to reward those who govern well, and peacefully give up office. An increasing number of Africans believe they can ask for better behavior from their leaders. Observer missions from the A.U., the Southern African Development Community and the Pan-African Parliament declared Zimbabwe's poll not credible. Some went further. Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma said Africa must "in no uncertain terms, condemn what has happened"; and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was among those who backed the deployment of A.U. troops to stem the violence. Even South Africa's ruling party, long comrades-in-arms with Mugabe's ZANU-PF, said the regime's behavior betrayed the ideals that brought it to power. Mugabe was "riding roughshod over the hard-won democratic rights of the people of that country," said the African National Congress.
This new African impatience may be having an effect. In his inauguration speech, Mugabe unexpectedly raised the possibility of sharing power with the opposition. "It is my hope that sooner rather than later, we shall as diverse political parties hold consultations toward such serious dialogue as will minimise our differences and enhance the area of unity and cooperation," he said. Mugabe's sudden appetite for peaceful talks may be mere rhetoric; certainly, no one expects "Uncle Bob" to step down anytime soon. But it could be that even he, the most ferocious of the dinosaurs, realizes that their age is coming to an end.