Even with a new president sworn in at the U.S. Capitol yesterday, for despots around the world, the events there on Jan. 6 must feel like an unexpected gift. The rhetoric of leaders like Zimbabwe’s President Emerson Mnangagwa demonstrates that dictators will use the riot at the seat of democracy to justify their own anti-democratic actions. America’s insurrection marked a setback for millions of people around the world who have been yearning and pushing for more democratic societies, where their voices – and their lives — actually matter.
While Americans have noted that the deadly riot at the Capitol undermines the country’s ability to be a democratic light for the rest of the world, this is not just a rhetorical exercise. Zimbabweans like myself have suffered under the crushing weight of decades of unrestrained plunder, terror, and murder at the hands of our own government. In the wake of Jan. 6, we were forced to listen and watch Mnangagwa and his henchmen make false comparisons to the United States. It is overwhelming, and presents existential challenges to our own efforts to create a more democratic Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwean people, like those of many oppressed nations of the world thirsting for democracy, have always looked to the United States as the moral leader of the world. Despite its flaws, we see the United States, and its diversity, its welcoming of immigrants, its free society, as the ultimate symbol and promise of what a truly free people can achieve. The Capitol riot was a blow to those around the world who have historically drawn encouragement and hope from the U.S electoral system.
Part of the problem is that Donald Trump’s refusal to accept defeat is familiar to us. His efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the election and encourage his mob to invade the Capitol was no different from the behavior that we have seen from Zimbabwean leaders since our independence: they undermine democracy and do everything they can to stay into power.
In 2018, Mnangagwa used government institutions like the electoral commission, the army, and the courts, to ensure that the election went in his favor, winning by markedly suspicious margins over opposition leader Nelson Chamisa. Unsurprisingly, when the U.S. Capitol descended into chaos, the ruling party compared Chamisa to Donald Trump because they both refused to accept election defeat. The comparison could not be further from the truth: Chamisa himself was beaten and tortured in his own quest for the presidency. But the fact that Trump has become a metaphorical punching bag is harmful for our own push for democracy.
Mnangagwa was able to hide his electoral corruption because his party controls the election commission, the army, the courts and the media. He once publicly boasted at a political rally that, ” We must be respected. We are the people. We are the majority. We are the government. We are the army. We are the air force. We are the police. We are everything you can think of.” Trump wishes he could say the same.
The events of Jan. 6 in Washington make it more difficult for us to hold our own government to account for their undemocratic behavior. Zimbaweans knew that their leaders would use Trump’s reign of derangement to justify its continued persecution of its own citizens. True to form, within hours, our fears were validated when an unashamed Mnangagwa tweeted ”Yesterday’s events showed that the U.S has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy.”
Not to be outdone, Foreign Affairs Minister Sibusiso Moyo noted that, “For a nation which prides itself on the democratic example it sets for others, and which judges and often punishes others for failing to meet its lofty standards of moral rectitude and governance, the events of Jan. 6…(show) that America itself is failing to meet the very benchmark standards it demands of others.”
The people of Zimbabwe, like the rest of the world, have been able to separate a rogue U.S president in Trump from the nation itself. We realize that his views are not necessarily the views of the American people.
But the U.S insurrection was a present to the authoritarian regime in Zimbabwe. It was a setback for all Zimbabweans who desire a more democratic future. We all hope that President Joe Biden will lead a more democratic United States, one that we can point to as an example we should follow, not one with a record that our dictatorial leaders can twist for their own ends.