Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924 and died on September 6, 2019 at age 95. Mugabe was Zimbabwe’s pioneer leader when the country gained official independence on April 18, 1980. He led the country as its Prime Minister from 1980 to 1987 and then as President from 1987 till 2017 when he was ousted by means of a coup d’état by henchmen.
Mugabe was born in Kutama a village in Southern Rhodesia. Mugabe’s father, a carpenter, left home while Mugabe was still a boy. He went to South Africa to seek employment at a Jesuit mission but never returned. Mugabe’s mother, who was a teacher, was then left to raise Mugabe and his three siblings as a single mother. An enterprising young man, Mugabe was able to help his mother make ends meet by doing various odd jobs.
His charisma and intelligence were quickly noticed by a local Jesuit Priest called Father O’Hea who took him under his tutelage. Reverend O’Hea is said to have instilled in Mugabe certain core values which would later define his political philosophy and spur him towards joining the revolutionary movement against white minority rule. From such humble beginnings and revolutionary ideals, Mugabe would later on turn out to be a brutal dictator whose rule largely destroyed Zimbabwe.
To pre-empt the possibility of black majority rule, white minority Southern Rhodesians made a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain in 1970 declaring the territory the Republic of Rhodesia. The result was the long and costly Rhodesian Bush War, or Second Chimurenga or Zimbabwe War of Liberation. The principal revolutionary movements were Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) which was a splinter of the ZAPU.
Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole was the leader of the ZANU but Mugabe dethroned him and took the lead. Sometime later in 1975, the ZANU broke into two groups, the ZANU-Ndonga and the ZANU-Patriotic Front or ZANU-PF led by Mugabe. The ZANU-PF and the ZAPU were, however, the principal movements facing the government of Rhodesia. The ZANU had a military wing known as the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and the ZAPU’s own military branch was the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZPRA).
Mugabe who had three Bachelor’s degrees, later on obtaining several other academic qualifications, was not only more educated but had demonstrated great skills as an orator as compared to peers. He, therefore, quickly became the face of the revolution. He was arrested and jailed in 1963 and was released in 1974. Unscathed by the decade-long detention, Mugabe returned to the bush to lead the guerrilla warfare against the Rhodesian government. International pressure finally led to negotiations to end white minority rule. In the general elections of February 1980, the ZANU-PF, led by Mugabe, came out victorious ushering Zimbabwe into full independence with Mugabe as its leader.
Butcher, dictator and false economist
Adulated as a revolutionary leader Mugabe, however, quickly showed a different face once in power. Despite his strong views against white minority rule and his claimed believe in equality, Mugabe oversaw the butchering of over 20000 Ndebeles during the Gukurahundi (the early rains that wash away the chaff). He was assisted in this dirty job by two key lieutenants from the era of the guerrilla war against the Rhodesian military, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa and Constantino Chiwenga.
With the aid of these two personalities and several other ZANU-PF elites, Mugabe built a brutal dictatorship in Zimbabwe entrenched in a civil-military complex. By the early 1990s Zimbabwe was already a securocracy and the intrusion of the military into politics as well as Mugabe’s own megalomania would plunge Zimbabwe into economic hardship. Once the breadbasket of Southern Africa, the country would become an economic disaster.
What happened was that Mugabe began using the land politically. White minority rule had ended but whites continued to control vast swathes of land. Britain under Tony Blair had reneged on its responsibilities as prescribed by the Landcaster House Agreement of 1979, discontinuing its financial obligations in the willing-buyer-willing seller arrangement.
In response, Mugabe decided to seize the land but handed it to regime cronies, especially those in the security sector. These stalwarts were clueless in farm management and before long the economy collapsed. Mugabe who had a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics should have known better, that farm management cannot be a political decision.
Long-stay in power, bedroom politics, coup, bitterness and death
Mugabe used the support he had from the security sector to maintain himself in power. He combined rigging of polls with crackdown on dissent as exemplified by the electoral violence in 2008. By 2017 it was clear that even at age 94 Mugabe had no intention of stepping down from power despite having ruled the country for over 37 years.
However, towards the end of 2017 Mugabe showed signs of an intent at transferring power to his intensely ambitious and avaricious wife, Grace Ntombizodwa Mugabe, in what was nothing short of bedroom politics. The only catch was that this move posed a problem to Old Guard led by Mnangagwa and Chiwenga.
Sacked from the position of Vice President and from the ZANU-PF in early November 2017 on trumped up charges but more concretely due to political infighting with Grace, Mnangagwa fled Zimbabwe to Mozambique from where he was airlifted to South Africa. A few days later on November 13, 2017, Chiwenga launched “Operation Restore Legacy” which led to Mugabe’s resignation on November 21, 2017 and the return and installation of Mnangagwa on November 24, 2017 as Zimbabwe’s second President since independence.
Despite promises to revamp the economy, Zimbabwe’s economic collapse has worsened under Mnangagwa from whom an economic miracle would be truly surprising seen that he and Chiwenga were part of the clique that destroyed Zimbabwe alongside Mugabe. Elections in 2018 were only meant to shore up the legitimacy of Mnangagwa who has since used repression on dissent resulting from growing disgruntlement at the worsening economic mayhem in Zimbabwe.
Despite ousting their old comrade through coup, Mnangagwa gave Mugabe a generous retirement package. However, Mugabe remained bitter because he felt he had been betrayed by younger comrades. He gave his support to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the July 2018 general elections.
Based on this backdrop, it is difficult to view Mugabe as a hero or liberator. He died more a foe or oppressor than a friend of his own countrymen. After destroying his own country, including its health system, Mugabe died on September 6, 2019 in a hospital in Singapore, over 8400km away from Zimbabwe, where he had been receiving treatment at the expense of the Zimbabwean taxpayer who he and his cronies have made sure to impoverish.
White minority rule was not good and the greed exhibited by the whites in the shape of the nature of white minority land ownership is unacceptable. However, somehow the white rulers were able to ensure better economic governance than have done purported revolutionaries in the ZANU-PF, notably Mugabe, who rather sold dreams and doled out misery to the people than govern responsibly.
The lesson for Africans is that dictatorship must be named and shamed. We must judge Mugabe based on facts around how he performed in government and the consequences of his actions while he was in power rather than on sentiments and unhealthy solidarity.