BSR: Post-Power Syndrome

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Old habits die hard

Sometime in 2015, parliamentary authorities were forced to take the unusual step of barring a former senior employee from entering the parliament building in central Harare just a few months after his retirement.

The former senior employee Austin Zvoma had been the Clerk of Parliament for 25 years. The Clerk is the most senior administrative officer in Parliament. The holder is effectively the Chief Operating Officer of Parliament, working under the supervision of the Speaker. Before the 2013 Constitution, the office had no term limits. This explains why Zvoma remained in office for 25 years. The new Constitution limits the terms to two of six years each.  

After spending nearly three decades in that powerful role, Zvoma had suddenly been retired in November 2014 when he reached the age of 65 years. Parliament resolved that it was time for him to go. Although that is the mandatory retirement age, Zvoma expected to remain in office for another 12 years, arguing that he should be permitted to serve two terms under the new Constitution. Parliament rejected this argument and sent him into retirement.

ZANU PF might have saved him from the ignominy of rejection, but he probably fell victim to the factional fights that were going on at the time. He may have been associated with the “Gamatox” faction which was associated with the then Vice President Joice Mujuru. Mujuru and anyone associated with her was being hounded out of their positions in the state and party.  

However, old habits die hard. Months after his forced retirement, Zvoma continued to come to the parliament building, his old workplace. He would pitch up daily and hop from one office of his former subordinates to another. It was reported that he would also patronize the parliamentary bar, where alcoholic and other beverages are subsidized.

This behaviour got too much for parliamentary authorities. Some felt Zvoma’s conduct was undermining the then acting Clerk of Parliament, Kennedy Chokuda. The Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Mudenda, instructed the acting Clerk to advise staff members not to entertain Zvoma. Soon afterward, Zvoma had to endure the embarrassment of being turned down by security guards when he pitched up at the parliament building. It was a classic case of how high and mighty had fallen.  

Post-Power Syndrome

Zvoma’s situation is a manifestation of what psychologists refer to as “post-power syndrome”. Post-power syndrome is a condition that afflicts individuals who believe they have power or status in society long after they have left their positions of power. Typically, an individual who used to hold a position of power and influence, whether in a company, organization, or the state, but now they no longer have it. We may, for convenience, refer to this stage when they no longer have power as the post-power phase. For individuals suffering the post-power syndrome, they will be physically out of power, but mentally, they will still be wielding power and influence.

The challenge is one of readjusting to the realities of the post-power phase. I have observed that people follow power, but once that power is gone, people disperse and follow new sites of power. When Morgan Tsvangirai was the Prime Minister, the phones never stopped ringing. Email boxes were overflowing with requests, invitations, and offers. But after the 2013 elections, the phones rang less and less, and the email inboxes were less busy. Privileges that came with the high office no longer existed. It was important for everyone to readjust to the new realities, but thankfully most people had been mentally prepared for that eventuality. But not everyone is always prepared for the post-power phase.

Several factors play a role in determining an individual’s ability to successfully readjust and adapt to the post-power stage. Length of time in a position of power is an important factor. Individuals who have been in power for a long time are likely to struggle more than those who have held power for a short time. Zvoma had been the lord of parliament for 25 years. It was hard for him to suddenly drop the privileged lifestyle to which he had become so accustomed. But you become a nuisance to others and you end up being ostracised. This only causes more problems for the individual as they feel alienated and rejected.  

Hubris Syndrome

Likewise, an individual who has held a lot of power is likely to suffer the most when they leave their position of power. This is especially the case where the individual used to abuse power without any consequences. Such people may have developed what psychologists refer to as the Hubris Syndrome, which Owen and Davidson define as a “disorder of the possession of power … held for a period of years and with minimum constraints on the leader”.

Hubris syndrome is acquired over time and can affect any person wielding considerable power. For such individuals, power is not just a weapon against rivals, but it is also a shield used to repel attacks. Therefore, when they leave their position of excessive power, they become vulnerable. They have neither the weapon of attack nor the shield of defence. Therefore, it is argued that when a person who has acquired hubris syndrome leaves power, they are likely to struggle with the post-power syndrome. They carry on as if they are still in power.

Jumped or Pushed?

Another key factor is how an individual leaves their position of considerable power. If they leave voluntarily, they might cope better because this is something that they would probably have prepared for. For example, if there are term limits, you know when your terms are up, there is no prospect of returning to the same office. Even with the best preparation, one is bound to struggle to readjust to a life outside a routine that has been established for a long period. We are creatures of habit, and it is hard to let go of old habits.

If they have left unwillingly, for example where they have been pushed out, the situation might be worse unless the individual manages their expectations. For example, if a president who has served a single term is not re-elected for a second term, they will feel inadequate and aggrieved and will struggle to adjust to a life without power. Someone might have just cause, such as where they were unlawfully sacked from their role. They could put up a legal fight to restore their position or where this is no longer possible, for compensation. But where the legal route is shut, the individual’s situation is more difficult. The most blatant circumstance of involuntary departure is where a coup has been carried out, such as what happened in November 2017 in Zimbabwe. Those who lost high office and power that came with it were not physically or mentally prepared for it and it has not been easy to readjust to the post-power phase.

The major problem with an involuntary departure is that individuals would not have properly prepared for it. Retirement is both a physical and mental process. One must accept that one day the sun will set, and they must make adequate preparations for such a day. Zvoma should have anticipated his retirement because he was reaching 65. But because there was an unhealthy tradition where individuals held office without restraints, he did not anticipate his departure and instead actually thought ZANU PF would back his bid to remain in office for two more terms. This was a classic case of someone who had acquired hubris syndrome. When that backing did not come, he had no choice but to face a future that he had not planned for.

Some are fortunate in that they get political backing to avoid the perils of a retirement that they have not adequately prepared for. Take the case of the current Chief Justice, Luke Malaba. He was due to retire in May this year when he reached the age of 70. But the regime of President Mnangagwa amended the Constitution just days before his retirement to extend his term of office by another 5 years. As mandatory retirement loomed closer, Malaba was already experiencing pre-mature signs of post-power syndrome because he could not fathom a life outside his position of power and influence. The only way to avoid dealing with the post-power syndrome was to remain in his position of power, to postpone the eventuality of retirement. The controversial constitutional amendment was the lifeboat that saved him from the choppy waters of post-retirement.

As I have already observed, the coup of November 2017 was a cataclysmic event that changed the lives of many people. But probably the most affected were the men and women who were in positions of power within the state. Some were ministers, while others held senior roles in the security services. These individuals wielded considerable power. Some of them behaved as if they would be in power forever. They spoke and acted with impunity because they had the apparatus of the state at their disposal. Their word was enough to cause a significant impact on the lives of other people. They had the power to change lives positively, but unfortunately, they used their power in ways that caused so much pain and suffering.

The coup swept them away, leaving them without power. Some had to flee into exile while others were thrown from pillar to post in the politicized criminal justice system. The post-power phase has not been easy for them although each of them has handled it in different ways. Some like Professor Jonathan Moyo remain vocal in the political arena, while by contrast, former police boss Augustine Chihuri has been on mute since the coup. Mandi Chimene is allegedly holed up in Mozambique while others like Saviour Kasukuwere and Patrick Zhuwao are living in South Africa. Dr. Ignatius Chombo, who was detained and tortured during the coup, has been dragged around the courts to no avail.

Grace Mugabe, probably the most vocal of the lot before the coup, has retreated into the background. Not a word from her concerning politics, she knows she must safeguard her family’s wealth acquired during her husband’s decades in power. As we shall see, she and Joice Mujuru both provide some lessons on how to cope with the post-power phase. Mnangagwa has made sure to look after her, but this is not because he suddenly developed some affinity and respect for Grace Mugabe. He is protecting her for personal reasons: he knows one day the sun will set for him too, but his wife and many children will need protection from whoever succeeds him in the future. The precedent of an incumbent protecting Grace Mugabe in return for her retreat from politics is good for his wife and family.          

Consequences of Post-Power Syndrome

A person suffering post-power syndrome might show by how they conduct themselves in society. Since they are mentally they are still in power, they might act as if they are in power. Since they think they are still in power, they expect to be treated like people who are still in power. For example, if their word was law, they do not expect anyone to challenge their views. Rather, they expect everyone to obey their commands. In their minds, they are still relevant, and they try hard to assert their relevance. They might arrogate leadership roles in the community, declaring themselves to be the leaders even without seeking the other members’ consent. Their general tendency is to do nothing except direct operations, even in areas that are best left to others.

They will also generally interfere in business that has nothing to do with them. They want to be useful, and they want people to see them as useful. They also tend to believe that their ideas are superior to the rest, and therefore, everyone ought to listen to them. They are surprised when they are challenged because they are not used to being challenged. When they have been challenged in the past, they have deployed the coercive instruments of the state against critics, but now they have none. They have nothing to hang onto therefore they end up resorting to the dark arts of blackmail, which only help to sink their reputation in the estimation of the public.

But, as we observed with the case of Chief Justice Malaba, fear of losing privileges of power and the uncertainty of the post-power phase leads to resistance to leaving power. This explains why senior public officials cling on to power. Most of them do not know life outside the top echelons of power. Leaving power not only means losing economic privileges but also social status. Most of them have never had personal vehicles, relying on state-issued vehicles. They have never bought agricultural equipment or inputs, relying on state handouts. They have never had to pay utility bills, all being absorbed by the state. They have never had to pay debts because the state always creates a scheme to take them over and land them on taxpayers’ shoulders. 

Leaving power means a huge loss of income.

Tobaiwa Mudede who served as Registrar-General for more than 3 decades wielded power in that office as if it were his little fiefdom. He had to be forced into retirement, otherwise, he would still be in office. Mariyawanda Nzuwa also spent decades as boss of the Public Service Commission. He too would still be in office to this day had he not been forced to retire. They cannot deal with the post-power scenario because they lose their privileges. Look at Didymus Mutasa. He was in the top leadership of ZANU PF for years and once led the Minister of State Security, in charge of the dreaded spy agency, the CIO. He ruled with an iron fist, his name struck fear into the hearts of residents of Rusape and surrounding areas. But the moment he lost power and privilege; he became a pale shadow of his old self. The situation of the likes of Mutasa serves as reminders to others still in power of the perils of the post-power phase and they do everything to remain in power.

Coping with Post Power Syndrome

It is important therefore to find ways of coping with the post-power syndrome. The first thing is to plan and anticipate that there will come a time when the sun sets on your power role. Power does not last forever. Like everything else, it has a shelf-life. During the Inclusive Government, we knew that it was not going to last forever. Many of us had careers to pursue in the post-Inclusive Government era. Our lives were not tied to roles in government. Once the man in charge of the national purse, Tendai Biti went back to legal practice and has done an excellent job advancing constitutionalism through public interest litigation. Chamisa went to the bar as an advocate. David Coltart left his role as a progressive Education Minister to go back to his legal practice. The problem is some people have no careers or businesses outside positions of power. Their lives are inextricably tied to powerful positions in politics.  

The second thing is acceptance when you are longer in a position of power. This requires a huge mental leap, especially when the loss of power was involuntary. Remember the problem with individuals who stay in power for too long is that they might acquire hubris syndrome. You must accept the reality that you are no longer in a position of power. What’s done can no longer be undone. Acceptance of ordinary life facilitates easier readjustment. If you don’t accept the reality of life without power you will remain delusional, thinking you have influence and that you are relevant when you are not.

A third way is to find new things to do in the post-power phase. If you were a politician, there is so much more to do outside the world of politics. In the Western world, politicians tend to make more money after they have completed public service. They become consultants, take seats on corporate boards and international organizations. Others revert to their careers in law, medicine, accounting, or academia.

Joice Mujuru presents an interesting example of finding a new lease of life in the post-power phase. Formerly the most powerful woman in the country when she was Vice President to Mugabe, she found herself in the political wilderness when she was pushed out of ZANU PF in 2014. Seven years later, she has undergone a big transformation which manifests in her physical appearance. She looks leaner, healthier, and younger. It’s as if politics burdened her with excess baggage, which the post-power phase has helped her shed off. After a difficult first few years of readjusting, during which she fancied her chances as a politician, she finally accepted her place and focussed her energies on farming and far away from the murky world of politics. She and others who followed a similar path show that there is life after politics.

Finally, it is a good idea to lie low and find recovery. Defeat in one battle is not the end of the road. There might be new opportunities in the future. But people are more likely to trust a person who is consistent than one who flip-flops to suit new conditions. People in politics want people to believe that they have reached an epiphany and their old lives are behind them. However, people rarely change their dispositions. It is more believable if they leave their position of advantage voluntarily. By contrast, it is harder to believe them if they were pushed out. In the latter case, change might seem to be more convenient than real. It is better to remain true to one’s beliefs, lie low and emerge when opportunity permits.

Conclusion

Post-power syndrome is real and it can affect anyone, whether in professional, corporate life, or politics. Whether you were a headteacher, manager, sportsperson or government minister, or senior civil servant, we are all vulnerable to a post-power syndrome, believing that we have power and influence when we no longer have it; believing we are relevant when we have lost relevance. Psychologists say post-power syndrome manifests in anxiety and sometimes depression even when we do not see it. You become a busybody, wanting to be involved in everything. This has an impact on other people.

However, depending on how you used power during your prime, you might face rejection due to this behaviour. If one exhibited hubris syndrome during their time in power, people will find it very hard to accept them when they no longer have power. This leads to resistance and rejection which might even make the individual’s condition worse. It helps to take time out; to find new things to occupy the mind and accept that the power phase is gone. It is hard to make the transition when you have not prepared for it, but it is not impossible.

WaMagaisa

atm@kent.ac.uk

wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk