“OUTDATED, self-centred and power-hungry ruler.”
By Hazel Ndebele
These are the unlikely yet hard-hitting words used by former Zanu PF youth leader Godfrey Tsenengamu to describe President Robert Mugabe last year.
His description, which would have been seen as taboo some years back, did not send shockwaves in Zanu PF. Many believed Tsenengamu had aptly described Mugabe, who turns 93 next week, but is still clinging onto power.
The expelled Mashonaland Central youth leader went on to say that by defending Mugabe, Zanu PF members were unwittingly “grooming and nurturing another Ian Smith who would turn to hound us”. Smith was the last white ruler of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, before Independence.
“I was a blind loyalist of Mugabe, I could not see that I was being used by Mugabe as I thought that I was defending him in the genuine cause and interest of the party, which is the same way he is using others currently who think that they are defending him,” said Tsenengamu who was booted out of the party in 2016.
Criticising Mugabe was unheard of and even dangerous in the 1970s and 1980s as he was a highly respected and popular leader treated as a demi-God.
When Mugabe came into power in 1980 he was a popular and promising leader. In 1994 he was awarded an honorary Knight Grand Cross in the Order of the Bath by Queen Elizabeth II, among other numerous accolades. His honorary knighthood was, however, rescinded in 2008 as a mark of revulsion at the abuse of human rights and abject disregard for the democratic process in Zimbabwe.
Many people spoke of him in glowing terms and he was even blasphemously equated to Jesus in some political circles, a level which has over the years degenerated.
After his appointment, Mugabe instigated a massive expansion in education and health, as well as other social services making him a popular leader. During that period, the adult literacy rate rose from 62% to 82%, one of the best records in Africa, earning Mugabe respect.
Levels of child immunisation steadily rose in his early years.
Despite his reputation being tainted by Gukurahundi massacres, he preached reconciliation, peace, and social cohesion as he did in 1980 after signing the Unity Accord with PF Zapu leader Joshua Nkomo, giving the impression he had reformed.
As the years passed by the leader who had pulled huge crowds and had support in his own country, regionally and internationally had his legacy destroyed by poor decisions, corruption and unpopular policies.
“I have learnt that Mugabe is the real force behind all the problems bedevilling the nation and the party though he pretends otherwise,” Tsenengamu said.
The former youth leader’s utterances are just an example of how Mugabe has since lost the respect and popularity he had back then. Zimbabweans have since turned to social media to campaign against the nonagenarian leader for clinging onto power and destroying the economy. Citizens who are frustrated by the difficult economic environment have been calling for Mugabe to step down in online videos, some of which are comical.
Mugabe has also lost the respect of even those who elevated him and used to be close to him such as the war veterans, some of whom have now openly told him to leave office.
Although most of Mugabe’s remaining loyalists cannot come out in the open to tell him to step down, they speak ill of him in private. Most reckon he has overstayed in power and is now a liability to the country. The consensus among Zimbabweans is that Mugabe has lost support and has fallen from grace to grass.
In April last year a group of war veterans demanded that he should step down. The group included former Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army commander, Parker Chipoyera, former top intelligence operative Retired Colonel Bastan Beta, Levy Gwarada and Ngoni Chitauro.
The group accused Mugabe of running down the economy and playing the tribal card to retain power, hence the decision to withdraw their support. They accused Mugabe of seeking to use them by only engaging liberation fighters during crises and discarding them like used tissue paper.
“To our fellow comrades, we take this opportunity to remind you that Mugabe no longer represents your interests,” Chipoyera said. “Zimbabwe, once the jewel and breadbasket of Africa, is now a failed state and a laughing stock, even among the poorest of nations. Its people are now deeply-divided along political, ethnic and tribal lines and the economy is in doldrums.”
Another group of war veterans in July last year released a strongly-worded communiqué where they described Mugabe as a sly character and dictator responsible for the current wave of corruption and economic meltdown, among a litany of other misdemeanours. It is alleged that the war veterans group which drafted the communiqué was led by former war veterans minister Christopher Mutsvangwa although he has since denied it.
Addressing war veterans in August last year, Mugabe bemoaned what he described as a lack of respect and discipline.
He said all party members should be united, disciplined and respectful.
The confrontational messages demanding that Mugabe step down in fact show that he has lost his 1980s aura. The president’s record of misrule has irreparably damaged his image and reduced him to a laughing stock. Regionally Mugabe is no longer as popular as he used to be. Internationally, he is now a pariah.
Just last month, South African opposition Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema criticised Mugabe’s continued stay in power, saying it was not good for Zimbabwe, Sadc and “the African revolution project”.
Malema accused Zanu PF members of being cowards for failing to tell Mugabe to go.
“Zimbabwe’s situation is bad. President Mugabe can’t even control a spade. He is no longer capable of discharging his responsibilities,” Malema said. “We don’t hate the man. They can respond and insult us anyhow they want, but they are a group of cowards, those comrades in Zanu PF, to be scared to say to an old man like President Mugabe, please, with due respect, let go.
“Commandant Fidel Castro, when he realised that it was no longer doable, he let go, so President Mugabe should let go, the legacy of the land question will carry it. We are following in his footsteps, we are proud of the actions he has taken, but his overstay is not doing justice on the African revolution project, he is destroying his own legacy, it’s bad.”
Mugabe, who used to wine and dine with royalty and hogged the global limelight, lost respect due to human rights abuses, land invasions, political and media repression and tyranny all in a bid to cling onto power.
Former British secretary Jack Straw was criticised in 2004 after footage of him shaking hands with Mugabe was broadcast. He was condemned for shaking hands with a man “whose hands are dripping with blood”.
Straw then defended the “grubby” handshake, implying that he did not know who he was meeting in a “dark corner” during a reception for former South African president Thabo Mbeki at the United Nations in New York.
Straw’s defence indicated how even internationally many no longer wanted to be associated with Mugabe. During Mugabe’s glory days people would stampede just to shake his hand or catch a glimpse of him.
In 2005, heir to the British throne Prince Charles was also criticised for shaking Mugabe’s hands at Pope John Paul II’s funeral. He, however, said he was caught by surprise when Mugabe offered his hand during the ceremony in Rome.
Bulawayo-based analyst Dumisani Nkomo said it is not true that Mugabe was universally popular in Zimbabwe as he never had political support in Matabeleland.
“It is a myth that Mugabe was popular throughout the country as he has never been popular in Matabeleland; those who found him popular soon discovered what a monster he was after the 2002 and 2008 electoral thefts, violence and killings,” Nkomo said. “What has tarnished Mugabe’s image and legacy such that everyone now wants him to step down is mainly the ruining of the economy which brought mass poverty. His 37-year record is disastrous.”
Nkomo said those close to Mugabe cannot tell him the truth due to fear of victimisation and patronage.
“Obviously people have been known to disappear therefore they will obviously remain silent even though they are realising that he is incapable of solving the Zimbabwean crisis which he authored.”
Political analyst Maxwell Saungweme said although Mugabe is now a failure, he performed well between the 1980s and 1990s.
“You cannot take away Mugabe’s good policies on education and social services between 1980 and 1990s. He did very well at that time; he was a regional and international statesman, a known and respected leader,” said Saungweme.
“However, that has all changed. His legacy has been eroded by longevity and failure. He overstayed his welcome and that has eaten into his legacy. He is now a mockery, a laughing stock. The Mugabe we have now is no longer the Mugabe of the eighties; this is a very poor version of that. In fact, an antithesis of the Mugabe we knew.”