ROBERT MUGABE’S career can be divided into three main parts.
First, as an extraordinarily skilful leader who managed to dominate a fractious nationalist movement opposed to the white-supremacist rule of Rhodesia’s Ian Smith.
Second, as a legitimate if increasingly flawed ruler from Independence in 1980 until his humiliating defeat in a constitutional referendum in 2000.
And third, as a bloodstained dictator who ruled by rigging elections and torturing his opponents until his ousting from within his own Zanu PF party in late 2017. There followed a brief coda as a deposed, and dying, tyrant.
His early years as a prisoner for 11 years in Smith’s Rhodesia and then in exile in guerrilla camps, mainly in neighbouring Mozambique, testify to his courage, resilience, tactical brilliance and charisma.
Behind the cleverness and charm, honed at first under the tuition of Jesuit priests, always lurked ruthlessness as well as cunning.
In prison he managed to persuade a handful of fellow prisoners who were fellow members of his party’s central committee that he should displace the internationally accepted leader, Ndabaningi Sithole.
Once he had been released from prison and fled into exile, he then persuaded guerrillas and African leaders that he was indeed the movement’s main man — another signal achievement.
But behind his scholarly demeanour, which impressed Westerners who met him at this stage, he showed his determination to crush dissent. Dissidents within the guerrilla camps were hounded, tortured and incarcerated, sometimes in underground pits.
At this stage, he was a devout Marxist, spurning the Catholicism of his childhood.
The second phase saw his triumphant and legitimate election as independent Zimbabwe’s first leader, initially as prime minister and then, from 1987, as president.
For a decade or so he broadly fulfilled his promise to treat fairly the white Zimbabweans, whose 5 000 or so farms provided the basis of what was one of Africa’s most prosperous agricultural economies.
The one big stain on those early years was the vicious suppression of dissent in southern Zimbabwe.
The Ndebele minority who, along with a related tribe made up a fifth of the populace, resented the domination of the mainly Shona people who backed Mugabe.
Around 20 000 people, mostly civilians, including many women and children, were massacred. But the economy was ticking along and the livelihood of most Zimbabweans was improving.
On the whole, Western governments and international donors looked the other way.
Towards the end of the 1990s, however, a growing number of landless Zimbabweans, especially a group known as war veterans (many of them bogus), began to chafe at Mugabe’s failure to buy out and distribute white farms.
Mugabe’s reckless decision in 1997 to make huge handouts to “the vets”, busting the budget and causing the World Bank to withhold funds, started a downward economic slide.
The start of the third phase of Mugabe’s long career was emphatically marked by a constitutional referendum in 2000 that would have given him extensive extra powers as president.
By this stage, a vigorous opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by a doughty trade-union leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had emerged, decrying — among other things — the growing corruption of Mugabe’s party elite, who were the main beneficiaries of whatever land redistribution was achieved. To Mugabe’s shock and horror, he lost the referendum by 54% to 46%.
Angry at his humiliation and enraged by the sight of a notable minority of white farmers helping the opposition in the referendum and subsequent election, Mugabe immediately began a campaign to confiscate white-owned land, without compensation and often violently. The main beneficiaries continued to be his party faithful.
His second wife, Grace, his younger by 41 years, began a particularly predatory campaign on behalf of the extended family around the president. In short order the economy collapsed, resulting in 2008 in a catastrophic inflationary cycle that made the currency worthless.
Meanwhile, the MDC continued to advance, and would almost certainly have won a series of fair elections. Indeed, it narrowly did win a general election in 2008, despite a campaign of murder and intimidation by Mugabe’s party thugs.
Tsvangirai simultaneously easily won the first round of a presidential contest but Zimbabwe’s electoral commission, in Mugabe’s pocket, managed to massage the figures down so that the opposition leader fell just short of an outright majority.
After several hundred MDC activists were murdered in the run-up to the second round, Tsvangirai was forced to bow out, leaving Mugabe in power.
In 2009, however, at the prodding of African governments in the surrounding region, led by South Africa’s, a government of national unity was formed.
A finance minister from the MDC, Tendai Biti, managed to stabilise the economy, shortly after the national currency had been abolished in favour of the American dollar, but Mugabe ran rings around the MDC, refusing to implement constitutional and other reforms that would have weakened his ruling party’s grip. The MDC was widely discredited by its stint in coalition.
This third and most horrible section of Mugabe’s career came to an undignified end because of his failing powers in old age and the increasing rapacity of his wife Grace Mugabe, who, it became increasingly clear, was bent on inheriting the throne on his death.
The decision of her circle to oust the vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, having apparently tried to poison him, from his seat as heir prompted his brief flight into exile and precipitated the military coup in late 2017.
Grace Mugabe’s position in the aftermath of her husband’s death will be precarious.
Mnangagwa’s ascent was welcomed by regional leaders, by Western governments and international lenders and donors. Zimbabwe, he declared, was again “open for business”.
He talked of compensating white farmers and welcoming some back. But his election last year was flawed, and followed by violence.
When opposition demonstrations erupted, he has demonstrated his party’s long-standing readiness to use lethal violence. He has kept most of Mugabe’s most venal cronies in high positions.
It is unclear whether he or the generals who put him in power are in charge. Above all, he has failed to revive the economy, which has entered a new cycle of decline, leading to a horrific level of destitution and misery.
Mugabe’s death has changed nothing on the ground — so far. After all, the displaced dictator had been out of power for nearly two years and indeed out of the country for several months.
But it is possible that a new dynamic may emerge at his funeral, whenever that takes place. A huge turnout is expected, which could easily turn into a mass protest against the current regime.
No one is sure how Mnangagwa, who has paid tribute to Mugabe, will handle the affair. After all, he was the dead tyrant’s chief enforcer for many years.
One of the most dismal features of the Mugabe tragedy is how popular he remained across Africa. At meeting after meeting of the African Union, he could count on a rousing ovation.
Astonishingly, the AU gave him its year-long ceremonial chairmanship two years before his fall. Whatever outrage he committed, however flawed the elections, the other 14 members at the time of the Southern African Development Community, with the honourable exception of plucky little Botswana, looked the other way.
The government of South Africa bears a particularly heavy responsibility for failing, over many years, to take him to task. Nelson Mandela disliked Mugabe intensely, but failed to unseat him.
If South Africa’s ruling African National Congress had truly wanted to bring him down, much as the apartheid government eventually froze out Smith in the late 1970s, it could have done so by severing transport, trade and other links with Zimbabwe, banning Mugabe and his pals from visiting South Africa even in transit, and rubbishing him on the world stage.
To be sure, many Africans still admire him for cocking a snook at the white-led Western establishment. His wit, his cunning, his cheek in the face of the once-oppressive white man, indeed his cocky longevity, all made him something of a hero.
He was adept at blaming the country’s collapse on Western sanctions imposed at first on 100-plus of his country’s elite, and later only on Mugabe and a handful of his henchmen.
Those measures were of a quite different order from the wholesale United Nations-led trade and finance sanctions that hobbled Smith’s regime until it fell in 1980.
Yet a large number of Africans outside Zimbabwe have been hoodwinked into believing Mugabe’s lie that sanctions were responsible for hamstringing the entire economy and harming millions of blameless Zimbabweans.
Some in Zimbabwe will always admire him for his brilliance in liberating them in the 1970s from a regime that was undeniably racist. His rise to the top of a fractious and fratricidal guerrilla movement was itself a remarkable achievement. The courage and cleverness in staying in power for so long cannot be gainsaid.
But the fundamental truth was that Mugabe was one of Africa’s most evil dictators. He caused misery to millions, and his main victims were not the white farmers, who have been disgracefully treated, but the hapless millions of black Zimbabweans who have been immiserated largely because of the vanity of one man.
— The Economist.