Mugabe a ‘deeply conflicted zealot’

In 2017, the Daily Maverick published a series of articles based on Stuart Doran’s monumental history of Zanu PF and Robert Mugabe, titled Kingdom, Power, Glory. In this major review of the book, former British Foreign Secretary David Owen reflects on his own intimate dealings with Mugabe during the 1970s, and his efforts to understand the man who would rule Zimbabwe for nearly four decades. Drawing on personal observation and reporting by British secretive service, MI6, Owen was initially attracted by Mugabe’s “high personal standards” and “apparent integrity”. But other, darker strands soon became visible.

David Owen,British politician

There are many different interpretations of what actually happened once the Lancaster House conference was over.

Doran describes how, after weeks of relentless pressure during the elections, the British position manifested itself in the approach of Christopher Soames, Carrington’s inspired choice as the last governor of Southern Rhodesia: “Slowly, the balance between international and internal considerations that had guided the British approach during Lancaster House began to shift.

It had been difficult to reconcile the two when they were so often in conflict; the internal objective of a moderate, multiracial government friendly to the West had, for example, been problematic given that the external goal of achieving wide international support required the backing of countries which supported the PF and its ostensibly radical agenda.

“The solution had been to accept and sell compromises such as the adoption of Nkomo (Joshua) as a moderate and the notion that limited international recognition for the new government (with some — hopefully temporary — damage to Britain’s international relationships) would suffice.

Such considerations continued to be in play, but undoubtedly the weight given to international factors had incrementally begun to increase under Soames, while there had been a decrease in the weight given to Britain’s internal aims.

“This was most clearly seen in the changing attitude to Zanla’s clear and sustained breach of the ceasefire.”

Former Zimbabwe’s president Mugabe’s victory should have been no surprise to anyone. Zanu politically and Zanla militarily had been building up strength steadily over the years. Initially Mugabe handled almost every aspect of his prime ministership in a spirit of reconciliation that surprised everyone including me.

It was, in many respects, an even greater reconciliation than that which followed immediately after former South African president Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom in South Africa. But there was one hurdle Mugabe could not personally surmount. Doran writes,

“While overtures to the whites were unambiguous, the signals given to Zapu and other minority black parties were more equivocal and complex. This was a theatre whose language was poorly understood by Western observers, most of whom were impressed and distracted by Mugabe’s temperance towards the white community and its institutions. After discussions in the Zanu (PF) central committee, Nkomo was offered the titular presidency.”

It surprised nobody when Nkomo rejected it as it was widely seen as “a symbol of impotence among African liberation movements.”
Mugabe’s fatal decision, which was inherent in his deeply conflicted personality, was when he met with the North Korean leader, Kim Il-Sung, at Tito’s funeral in Yugoslavia in May 1980.

A meeting which the Korean Vice-Premier, who visited Zimbabwe that July, told the Rhodesian Herald had “recorded a new chapter in the history of (bilateral) . . . relations” and that he had come to have further discussions when under the leadership of Mugabe the Zimbabwean people were “unfolding a dynamic struggle to consolidate their independence”.

Addressing Zanla ex-combatants in August 1981, Mugabe announced the formation of Fifth Brigade to be a “special unit” used to “deal with dissidents and any other trouble in the country”.

It was to be trained and equipped by the North Koreans. Mnangagwa, who later in 2017 supplanted Mugabe as President, told the House of Assembly that 106 Korean instructors had arrived in Zimbabwe and would stay for 8-12 months. Zimbabwe’s own military intelligence in December 1981 reported that the Fifth Brigade was structurally ill-equipped for any serious military role and that “this Brigade to all intents and purposes non-integrated, has become a symbol of the One-Party state”.

Estimates of the total death toll attributed to the Fifth Brigade’s operation in Gukurahundi in Matabeleland between 1983 and 1984 vary widely. The most accepted number is 20 000. The term genocide has also often been applied.

Doran is careful, as befits his disciplined research, emphasising that “a charge and finding of genocide are dependent not only on extensive expert debate but also on a legal process”.

The fact is that the world turned aside from putting its full weight behind a proper international investigation, but Doran is clear that it was “motivated by political objectives and ethnopolitical animosity”.

“The depth of the attitudes and emotions that fed such actions were not possible – and nor are they comprehensible — without context of equal measure. In the same way, it was not possible to bring such a mindset to its logical conclusion during the formative years of the post-colonial nation-state without such events leaving an ineradicable mark on perpetrator, victim and nation.

Yet the massive violence of the Gukurahundi and its proximity to Independence do not on their own explain its defining character. Rather, the nature of the ideology itself was necessary: the vision that fed the Gukurahundi was not a tempestuous and untamed philosophy which impinged itself temporarily if devastatingly on the nation; the killings were instead an expression of a perverse ideal — of what Zanu (PF) believed the people and their rulers were meant to be.”

As so often in politics, the personality of leaders is a critical factor and time after time its importance is underrated.

I have written extensively on this in a book called In Sickness and In Power first published in 2008 (David Owen, In Sickness and In Power. Illness in Heads of Government over the last 100 years (Methuen, 2008, updated edition 2016).

I spent very many hours with Mugabe in 1977 and 1978. Initially I was attracted by his seriousness, his careful use of words and apparent integrity: reluctance to lie, and high personal standards with no evidence of corruption. I had MI6 confirm he was not just a Catholic by name, but at that time in Maputo a regular clandestine attender at mass. Yet he was also an open Maoist, something later continuously manifested in government with a close relationship with China.

It became very clear to me by the middle of 1978 that Mugabe was in favour of “re-educating” his people through a one-party state and so for all his personal crookedness and indecision Nkomo would be a better leader initially of Zimbabwe.

From 1980-82 I felt embarrassed that I had misjudged Mugabe’s personality, but from 1982 onwards he gave every sign that he was and remains to this day a deeply conflicted zealot, the sort of person who should never be President of any country. That judgement was made after watching another zealot, a Maoist and a Buddhist, wreaking havoc on his people, namely Pol Pot, in Cambodia.

The question for Africa is: how much longer will its parliamentarians allow their leaders to remain in power, not just for one or two terms but for decades? South Africa may now be the country to demonstrate that there is another way forward, not only have they been able to oust President Jacob Zuma, but he has now been served with very serious criminal charges.

One of the interesting facets of South Africa under apartheid was that the courts remained remarkably resistant to successive Afrikaner governments. I first met South African President Cyril Ramaphosa when he was a miners’ leader in 1979. I remember having breakfast with Mandela in London in 2007, when he confirmed to me that Ramaphosa had been his first choice to succeed him, but that was not the wish of the ANC. It is no exaggeration to say that on Ramaphosa’s shoulders rests the future of the African continent.

Kingdom, Power, Glory should be at his bedside to dip into from time to time to remind him of the depth of the problems he faces. — Daily Maverick.
Lord Owen served as Navy Minister, Minister of Health and Foreign Secretary under Labour governments during the 1970s. He served as an MP for over 26 years standing down in 1992. He served as EU peace negotiator in the former Yugoslavia from 1992-95. He now sits in the House of Lords as an independent social democrat.

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