On 17 April 1980, President Robert Mugabe addressed a euphoric crowd in the soon-to-be-independent Zimbabwe.
By Jeffrey Smith
In the aftermath of a long and brutal liberation struggle against white minority rule, Mugabe seemed to publicly embrace the ideals of peace and reconciliation.
By becoming Zimbabwe’s leader, he ostensibly vanquished the ugly spectre of colonialism and racism that had defined the country formerly known as Rhodesia, and entered office buoyed by a wave of international fanfare and support.
It was in this context, on the eve of Zimbabwe’s independence, that Mugabe declared:
“Democracy is never mob rule … Our independence must thus not be construed as an instrument vesting individuals or groups with the right to harass and intimidate others … Our new nation requires … a new spirit that must unite and not divide.”
This hopeful rhetoric would almost immediately ring hollow.
By July, a state of emergency had been declared and a mere six months after achieving independence there were clashes between Zanla and Zipra forces — the armed wings of Zanu PF and PF-Zapu respectively — in Bulawayo. The discovery of an alleged Zipra arms cache in 1982 was in 1983 followed by the first wave of the Gukurahundi massacres, a violent suppression of the ethnic Ndebele minority in Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands province in which an estimated 20 000 people were murdered.
The Gukurahundi would mark the ominous beginning of an era characterised by widespread violence, suppression of the political opposition and civil society, rampant corruption, and a gradual degradation of Zimbabwe’s economy.
Although a cavalier disregard for human rights has been a hallmark of Mugabe’s leadership from the outset, this largely went unnoticed or otherwise tacitly encouraged by his Western backers early on.
Despite the warning signs of an intolerant leadership with violent tendencies, then US president Jimmy Carter welcomed Mugabe to the White House in August 1980, giving a round of stirring speeches to university students in Washington, DC.
Early in the next decade, following a series of violent and allegedly rigged elections and what some have labelled a genocide against the Ndebele, Mugabe was appointed an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II and received scores of honorary degrees from around the world. Many of these honours, including his knighthood, have more recently been revoked.
Whereas Mugabe and his allies in the military, police, and security forces once largely relied on physical violence to preserve their hold on power — from Gukurahundi to the horrific electoral violence of the 2008 presidential poll run-off — state repression is now largely masked behind the “rule of law”.
While there are occasional outbursts of violence against peaceful protesters and suspicious disappearances of critics, the Mugabe government relies on more nuanced methods to maintain a veil of democratic legitimacy.
Harassment and dubious incrimination of human rights defenders doesn’t attract the same headlines as overt violence. And in this sense, Mugabe has learned the all-important lessons for 21st century despots: use courts and state prosecutors instead of baton-wielding security forces to strangle the legitimate work of civil society actors; and stage routine elections, but peacefully tilt the playing field in your favour, thereby making the election a mere formality.
These cunning methods have allowed Mugabe to rule the country he once helped to liberate longer than many Zimbabweans have been alive.
Mugabe has the ignominious distinction of being the only African head of state to preside over an average decline in both economic output and life expectancy since 1980; Zimbabwe’s poverty rate has skyrocketed; and the nation has shifted from being a global exporter of food to one in which one in four citizens needs food assistance.
Furthermore, a recent survey by the country’s largest trade union found that 75 major companies have shut down since January 2014 alone, putting around 9 000 breadwinners out of work; a once lauded education system is crumbling with teachers routinely threatening strike action or leaving the work force altogether due to meagre salaries.
A recent study by the Centre for Global Development estimates that Mugabe’s misrule has cost the country upwards of US$96 billion.
Zimbabwe’s economic decline began in earnest in 2000, the year Mugabe suffered defeat in a constitutional referendum.
Shortly after that defeat, groups of liberation war veterans ostensibly took the long-standing problem of land distribution into their own hands as they seized, often violently, vast tracts of land from the country’s white commercial farmers.
This so-called fast-track land reform programme was, at least in theory, well-intentioned as it redistributed land to around a million black Zimbabweans, many of whom have since made successes of their farms. However, many farms that were once booming are now underutilised, and considerable chunks of the seized land ended up in the hands of Mugabe family members and long-time supporters of the ruling Zanu PF party.
This type of mismanagement and corruption, often under the dubious guise of ‘national progress”, is not uncommon.
Nowadays, scandals are so commonplace that barely anyone outside the country bats an eyelid at revelations of mega salaries paid out to parastatal bosses whose entities are mostly broke.
All the while, the US and other western governments send millions of dollars in aid, lending a lifeline to a government that blames the West for most of its ills, while benefiting from unchecked graft and corruption.
After the 2013 elections, the West collectively questioned the legitimacy of an election allegedly stolen without bloodshed — surely a vast improvement for Zimbabwe — but in private breathed a huge sigh of relief.
International actors — including governments and civil society — can take a number of steps to strengthen democracy in countries like Zimbabwe.
First, they should recognise that “peaceful elections” — in other words, the lack of bloodshed on election day itself — are not necessarily fair or credible.
Leaders that ascend to power through illegitimate means should be labelled as such and rightfully isolated until necessary reform is implemented.
Second, we must work collaboratively, with more progressive regional leaders in Africa, to counteract repressive legislation such as anti-protest and public assembly laws as well as so-called “NGO laws” that restrict foreign funding for independent groups and unduly increase government oversight.
We can do this together by investing more in civil society, thus empowering individuals with the necessary tools to combat modern-day repression at the local level.
In his speech 34 years ago, Mugabe appealed to the best in all of us, planting the seeds of social cohesion and genuine progress, particularly for those who had been unfairly marginalised in the past.
Today, that same soil is heavy with the spilt blood of those who dared to oppose his rule and now seems incapable of sustaining an increasingly starved population.
Mugabe is living proof that power corrupts, and that a cult of personality can devastate a country otherwise brimming with untold potential.
To many Mugabe remains an African hero, but to many others his legacy will be one of violence, intimidation, corruption, and economic ruin, but this certainly does not need to be Zimbabwe’s lasting legacy as a nation. — Think Africa.
Jeffrey Smith is an advocacy officer at the Robert F Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.