Mugabe to Rule From Beyond the Grave: the Kim Il-Sung of Africa

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace has suggested that he could rule from beyond the grave. Such a comment shouldn’t come as too much of a shock given the equally bizarre, repressive and demagogic reign Mugabe has had. Perhaps more surprising is the acknowledgement that he is actually going to die at some point, having defied both death and deposition to rule into his ninety-fourth year.

Grace Mugabe is Robert’s second wife and has cemented a formidable reputation of her own

Africa is no stranger to kleptocratic and confounding rulers, of course. From the cannibalistic ‘Emperor’ of Central Africa Jean-Bedel Bokassa to The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh – whose claims that he would rule for a thousand years should Allah decree it were cut short by a shock election defeat in December 2016 – the World’s least developed continent has been plagued by mismanagement from within the highest echelons of political power.

Bokassa at his ‘coronation’ as Emperor (l) and the sunglasses-loving Jammeh (r)

To think that Mugabe’s ruinous rule could continue indefinitely is enough to terrify even those blessed with the strongest of constitutions. He has led one of southern Africa’s most prosperous economies to the brink of extinction, carried out numerous acts of political repression, stifled civil society and encouraged grotesque human rights abuses.

It is perhaps no surprise that his wife is now making these fanciful claims given that she apparently has an eye on the presidency. Invoking the eternal fear of her husband may perhaps dissuade some of her rivals from attempting to oust her before she can seal the top spot.

Whether such a ploy can work is doubtful. Mugabe has been effective in maintaining his grip on power. Yet he has not developed the sort of ideological personality cult that surrounds possibly the most successful posthumous ruler of his day; Kim Il-Sung.

The North Korean communist supremo, who ruled his country (in person at least) from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994, retains the title of ‘Eternal President’ in the rogue state now ruled by his maniacal grandson, Kim Jong-Un.

Kim Il-Sung at the Front during the Korean War – Chinese and Soviet backing set the platform for his dictatorship

Fostering a personality cult centred on his unique Juche philosophy, the elder Kim was able to command unswerving loyalty from almost every North Korean citizen, despite a brutal totalitarian regime characterised by periodic starvation, forced interments, and a complete prohibition on the exercising of free will.

Both his son Kim Jong-Il and his grandson Kim Jong-Un have adeptly followed in his footsteps, both safe in the knowledge that the founder of their dynasty retains a critical – if not exactly active- role in ruling his state from the next realm.

The monstrous bronze monument of Kim Il-Sung on the Mansu Hill near Pyongyang reinforces his superiority over the mere mortals he continues to command, a reminder that nothing changes in spite of his physical absence.

Kim Il-Sung has been joined in eternity on Mansudae by his late son, Kim Jong-Il

It is this uniquely persevering hold on a people that has allowed North Korea to operate outside the boundaries of international law and retain a regime of unfathomable brutality without any insurrection or military coups. Kim Jong-Un is taking this ‘freedom’ to the limits, most recently firing a series of ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan.

Unfortunately for Grace Mugabe, Robert will not bequeath her the genetic legacy or instruments of repression necessary to make her a conduit for his rule from wherever his spirit eventually flees.

You will rule from your grave at the Heroes Acre because you are a uniting force for us.

Truer words have undoubtedly been spoken, yet there is an underlying reality implicit in Grace’s sentiment. Despite overseeing a country mired in misery and suffering, the Kim’s have prevented the disintegration of the North Korean nuclear state and the upheaval such a scenario would cause.

Robert Mugabe has clung to power in Zimbabwe through the harshest measures, and still his demise threatens to unleash a bloody power struggle that could rip the nation asunder.

In a bitter twist of irony to draw to a close the life of one of modern history’s most tyrannical despots, perhaps some are silently wishing that his rule continues in perpetuity.


One Belt, One Road: Barking Next Stop for China’s ‘New Silk Road’

‘One Belt, One Road’. This is the slogan of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s landmark development strategy to create a new, twin-pronged ‘Silk Road’ between China and Europe.

One Belt, One Road as initially conceived
One Belt, One Road as initially conceived

It resurrects the halcyon early days of Eurasian integration when overland routes were established between the Spice Islands of present-day Indonesia and the capitals of Europe, passing through multiple cities whose fortunes prospered as trade flourished.

Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Kashgar, Kandahar, Tehran, Baghdad, Palmyra, Lanzhou. All these names once threw up images of medieval wealth, with their fabulous spires, learned universities and libraries, powerful overlords and multicultural marketplaces. Alas, most are now known for wholly different reasons.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Bukhara, Uzbekistan

The originator of the Silk Road of antiquity was the Han Dynasty, who traded the eponymous luxury (in addition to many other goods) across its vast empire and beyond from the 2nd century BC until its fall in the 3rd century AD. Whilst it survived in various incarnations, the route best known to history was at its strongest during the so-called ‘Pax Mongolica’ and here it is worth quoting at length from the eminent J.H. Parry:

In the great days of the Mongol Khans much Chinese merchandise destined for Europe had travelled overland on the backs of camels and donkeys by many different caravan routes, to termini in the ports of the Levant and the Black Sea; and European merchants, not infrequently, had themselves travelled with their goods by these routes. Flourishing Italian merchant colonies had grown up at the principal termini, at Constantinople and Pera, its commercial suburb; at Tana (Azof); at Caffa in the Crimea and at other Black Sea ports. In the fourteenth century Pegolotti’s safe route to Peking became exceedingly unsafe and European travel to the east came to an end. The overland routes in general declined in importance, not only because of political disturbance, but from the same physical causes which kept the predatory nomads on the move. Progressive desiccation in the lands of central Asia made pasture unreliable. The flow of merchandise overland diminished, and the ancient towns through which the caravans passed became impoverished. (Parry, 1963, p.56)

The Silk Road of the Middle Ages
The Silk Road of the Middle Ages

The final death knell in the coffin of the Silk Road was the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, with European states and merchants no longer able to possess a foothold in the Middle East, let alone a launchpad for Asian trade.

Now, the Barking Rail Freight Terminal in London is waiting to become the 15th destination on the ‘New Silk Route, a Chinese freight train expected in the coming days. Overland trade is being re-popularised, a cheaper alternative to air freight, a safer and quicker alternative to the sea. It forms one strand of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, the other to create a ‘Maritime Silk Road’ between China, India, the Middle East and Africa.

For the countries of Central Asia, decimated by first the Russian Empire and then the ravages of Soviet rule, it is an opportunity to reinvent themselves and potentially recapture some of their past glory. Simultaneously it offers China a chance to increase both its economic and political influence in regions where the US footprint is light at best. What Russia thinks is another matter.

It is unlikely that China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ will captivate the popular imagination in the same way that the Silk Road of old does, yet it is nevertheless a proactive step by the Chinese government to integrate a giant landmass in a way not seen for centuries.

Xi's seminal project has not been without its challenges though its ambition is undoubted
Xi’s seminal project has not been without its challenges though its ambition is undoubted

What the geopolitical consequences of this bold venture will be cannot yet be known, but it certainly goes some way to undermining critics who view China as an insular power unwilling to responsibly use its ascending role on the global stage.


Parry, J. H. The Age of Reconnaissance (1963)

A Final Hurdle for Aung San Suu Kyi? Recognising the Rohingya and Uniting Burma

In 1799, Francis Buchanan, a surgeon with the British East India Company, traveled to Myanmar and met members of a Muslim ethnic group “who have long settled in Arakan [Rakhine], and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.”

This statement is significant for it provides positive evidence that the Rohingya people were firmly established in Burma prior to 1823, the cut-off date for being officially recognised as one of the country’s minority ethnic groups. 135 groups currently qualify; oddly the Rohingya do not. They are branded as outcasts, ineligible for citizenship, their treatment by the government testament to such an unenviable status.

The lot of the Rohingya in Burma is an unhappy one. Constantly persecuted, their plight unrecognised by the powers in Naypyidaw, these Muslims are vulnerable to the Buddhist nationalism that pervades the country, open to abuse simply because of the exhortation of a zealous monk. Cries for help go unheeded, every minor act of protest deemed an insurrection. Attempts to flee to neighbouring Thailand and Bangladesh are rebuffed with casual brutality.

Rohingya populations are strong in Rakhine state and yet they are treated as illegal immigrants by the government
Rohingya populations are strong in Rakhine state and yet they are treated as illegal immigrants by the government

Given that the Rohingya make up some 4% of Burma’s population, such a state of affairs is both wholly unsatisfactory and frequently deadly, as a recent wave of forced evictions and murders in Rakhine state testify to. The Rohingya are linked to terrorist groups by the government; this may yet become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rohingya forced from their villages despite centuries of settlement within Burma
Rohingya forced from their villages despite centuries of settlement within Burma

At the same time, sanctions on the Burmese government are easing. The end of Junta rule and the rise to power of the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi have encouraged the international community, who identify the precursors to a genuinely democratic transition, not to mention lucrative economic opportunities in the underexploited country.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a darling of the West, famed for her stoic resistance during years of house arrest, her tolerance of her fellow human beings and propagation of forgiveness. That said, she has done little to help the Rohingya, even after the migrant boat crisis of last year. Desperate to maintain the loyalty of the population, championing the cause of a sizable Muslim minority is potentially an act of political suicide. Yet what better way to signal Burma’s miraculous change than to include the Rohingya in the nation, to strive to put an end to ethnic strife?

Aung San Suu Kyi is coming under international pressure to address the Rohingya problem
Aung San Suu Kyi is coming under international pressure to address the Rohingya problem

Parts of modern Burma (or Myanmar) were first united in the 11th century under a dynasty that succeeded the great states of Mon and Pyu. This was overthrown by the Mongols in the 13th century, breaking up into various statelets that from the 1600s saw an incursion of European traders, namely Portuguese, English and Dutch.

Burma was once more united in the 18th century under Alaungpaya, although the pervasive influence of the British in particular soon became ominously apparent. From their bases across the Indian border, the British fought a series of wars with Burma over the province of Assam before finally incorporating the nascent state into its Empire in 1885.

British forces arrive in Mandalay during the decisive Third Anglo-Burmese War
British forces arrive in Mandalay during the decisive Third Anglo-Burmese War

The British ruled Burma as a province of India until World War Two when the Japanese invaded, precipitating a period of jungle warfare that has passed into infamy for its tragic conditions and the unwillingness of Tokyo’s Imperial Army to surrender. After the eventual defeat of the invader, independence was secured from the British in 1948 before democracy was quashed by a succession of military regimes.

Through most of this history the Rohingya have been present, with Muslim settlement in Rakhine state recorded as early as the 16th century.

The official line is that the Rohingya arrived only after the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826
The official line is that the Rohingya arrived only after the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826

Aung San Suu Kyi should not be expected to solve all of Burma’s problems independently, yet she exercises the only unifying appeal in a country wrought by ethnic tension, still reeling from years of repressive military rule. A bold statement in support of the Rohingya, whilst in the short-term potentially damaging, could set a marker for communal tolerance, and a level of expectation that government representatives and the armed forces cannot continually dismiss these people as aliens to be trampled on.

History is always used selectively by those who rule, a political tool providing unity and exclusion in equal measure. Yet it is hard to doubt the legitimate claim for the Rohingya to receive recognition from Naypyidaw, to win their citizenship. Those who dismiss the term ‘Rohingya’ as a political construct nevertheless overlook the fact that these people are being persecuted simply for existing.

Aung San Suu Kyi has made recent attempts to hold conference with the various ethnic groups that make up modern Burma. The Rohingya must be included and recognised if she is to truly cement her legacy. Those thinking of ending sanctions, on the other hand, would do well to think twice before becoming all misty-eyed about the great Burmese transformation.

Democracy and equality remain a million miles away.