Gumisai Nyoni Journalist
ONE of the country’s greatest orators — and demagogue too — former president Robert Mugabe, was controversial in life and now in death. Although he was ideologically difficult to pin down given his complex character and many shades of philosophical persuasions, he was certainly a pan-Africanist — believed in the solidarity, emancipation and prosperity of indigenous and diasporan ethnic groups of African descent — despite all the contradictions his thinking and life embodied.
Writing in his book Zimbabwe: A Revolution That Lost Its Way?, Andre Astro says Queen Elizabeth II, prior to the Lancaster House Conference talks in 1979, wanted to meet either Zapu leader Joshua Nkomo or Mugabe, who was Zanu leader, for a chat. However, she expressed greater interest in meeting Mugabe in a special tete-a-tete.
Astro says after the Lancaster House talks, which resulted in the then Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith and the guerrilla armies Zanla and Zipra hammering out a negotiated settlement to end the armed liberation war, which ushered in black majority rule in 1980, the Queen had a five-minute close encounter with Mugabe.
The specific details of that brief meeting were not divulged, but she is thought to have encouraged Mugabe to proclaim a policy of reconciliation, which eventually made Zimbabwe’s new prime minister a darling of the West.
This presented the newly-independent “Jewel of Africa” with great opportunities, with some economists suggesting Zimbabwe was ready for economic rising from the ashes of war.
Indeed, a semblance of progress was realised in the first decade of Independence before a tragic turn of economic events marked by the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme which started in 1991, payment of hefty financial perks to liberation war fighters (November 14, 1997 — that became known as the Black Friday), participation in the Democratic Republic of Congo war and the chaotic land reform programme in 2000, whose effects have now decimated the livelihoods of an impoverished majority.
After years of economic mismanagement, unemployment started soaring and more than three million people now live as economic refugees outside Zimbabwe. Such problems have now come to symbolise the dramatic collapse of the political economy and tragic national failure under Mugabe.
This sharply contrasts with the hype and euphoria that had gripped the country in the aftermath of Independence, with many Zimbabweans, who had borne the brunt of a protracted war, expecting government to fulfil liberation struggle objectives — land, democracy, human rights respect, rule of law, property rights and economic empowerment — and elections promises of jobs, good living and prosperity.
While Zimbabwe won political independence, Mugabe and his government remained dependent on the erstwhile master Britain, USAid and transnational companies such as Lonrho, Rio Tinto, among others, for support. They had no control over the economy.
Like most African countries, Zimbabwe attained flag independence, but not economic emancipation. In Francophone Africa, the colonial method of assimilado (assimilation), ipso facto rendered countries that had freedom incapable of operating outside the colonial set-up. Most of them relied on aid and reported their parliamentary proceedings to Paris, in which France would ultimately have the final say.
World War II machinery that was used in these countries’ newsrooms was donated courtesy of France, with ownership of newspapers concentrated in the hands trusted lieutenants, who bolstered French policies. Charles de Breteuil was a media proprietor who dominated former French colonies with newspaper editions such as Dakar-Martin (Senegal), Abijan-Martin (Ivory Coast).
This French link is critical in that it places Mugabe almost in the same context in his early years of leadership. He behaved similarly like an evolue, who subscribed to British and Western mindsets and strongly believed in Western values despite his pan-African rhetoric and liberation rants glorifying socialism.
Mugabe ironically waved the banner of socialism, though in earnest upholding capitalism. He fulfilled this idea by proclaiming the policy of reconciliation and allayed fears of many whites who were packing their bags to leave Zimbabwe, thinking that the pitfalls of a strategy similar to Samora Machel’s grab-and-chuck-out in Mozambique could befall them.
Interestingly, on the last Saturday towards the 1980 polls, according to history, there was a fake Moto magazine on the streets, which was printed on gloss paper, with an editorial comment saying Mugabe was a Marxist whose rise to power would be catastrophic to the white community.
In the original Moto magazine, which only hit the streets late in the afternoon that day, the editorial was conspicuously absent. By turning left when all the whites had expected a bloodbath, Mugabe was supposed to begin his journey to restoring the country’s legacy as the jewel of Africa and a safe destination for investment, positioning it strategically as the breadbasket of southern Africa. Zimbabwe enjoyed the early fruits of liberation, with major strides realised in education and the health sector.
However, during the same period Mugabe’s North Korea-trained 5 Brigade, reflecting his quest for power at all cost, massacred close to 20 000 innocent civilians, including pregnant women and children in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, under the false pretext he was containing a dissident uprising. By ruthlessly thwarting dissent, Mugabe heralded the worst experiences that would follow.
As if that was not enough, and without learning from the failures of other nations like Zambia and Tanzania, Zanu was clamouring for a one-party state from the start. Early indications pointed to a Zimbabwe where freedom and democracy would be stifled.
While the de jure one-party state was resisted and failed to take root in Zimbabwe, the country became a de facto one-party state, in which the opposition were ruthlessly silenced.
In all this, Mugabe set a precedent for violence, creating the roots of Zanu’s culture of violence. In later years, the military was to dictate governance and that is why Mugabe stayed in power for far too long even when economic indicators were flashing red. All the tremendous gains that were made in the first decade of Independence were tremendously reversed, sinking Zimbabwe into the hopeless situation it is currently wallowing in.
Fast-forward to 2000, with the emergence of the MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe became highly intolerant and unleashed terror, which left opposition supporters dead, while others were seriously injured. After riding on the land reform programme to appease peasants and war veterans, Mugabe, however, failed to contain the ever-sinking economy, sparking disgruntlement among workers, whose salaries began to tumble in value as standards of living plunged.
Prior to that, the 1998 food riots and demonstrations in state universities were thwarted by the military, which was to later become greatly instrumental to suppressing dissenting voices. All other elections that followed, until 2008, were bloody and horrific.
In 2008, Mugabe claimed to have won the bloody June 27 run-off to Tsvangirai after being outpolled in the initial round. The run-off ultimately became a one-man race after the opposition had pulled out due to military brutality.
The army and Zanu PF youths also hounded opposition supporters, rendering the whole electoral exercise pointless. Refusal to accept defeat amid an economic meltdown and hyperinflation further tainted Mugabe’s legacy as a liberation icon, justifying his tag as a brutal dictator, who killed for the sake of power retention. Economic development was sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.
The house of hunger and terror that Mugabe built, with the assistance of his allies in Zanu PF, will continue to haunt Zimbabwe well after his death.
The levels of intolerance he spread are being perfected by the so-called new dispensation, as shown by escalating cases of abduction, and the shooting of civilians in August last year, who were demanding the announcement of presidential election results, as well as in January this year when protesters were shot following fuel price hikes.
Because Mugabe’s last days in power were rooted in political survival and self-aggrandisement, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who came to power through a coup which toppled Mugabe in November 2017, seems to incessantly ignore loud calls from the pauperised masses, whose livelihoods have deteriorated to alarming levels, to implement policies that cushion them from the effects of economic rot.
Increases in prices of basic commodities and the destructive effects of a political crisis in the country, have both landed the country in the quicksand. Owing to corruption, bad governance and incompetent leadership, the government has failed to create jobs or attract much-needed foreign investment to redeem the fortunes which Mugabe burnt in the house that he had built in the first decade of Independence.
With the recent displays of police brutality and the banning of opposition demonstrations, the so-called Second Republic has just deteriorated beyond the calibre of a banana republic. The one-party state thinking is certainly crawling back to haunt us, while a de facto state of emergency has been put in place.
In all this, Mugabe’s angry rhetoric “Blair, keep your England and I will keep my Zimbabwe” has been exposed for the political charade it is. His legacy is not prosperity, but a house of horror and terror, where those who believe in constitutionalism are maimed, abducted, killed and thrown into dungeons.
It is Mugabe who glorified tyranny as an ideal leadership model, hence he was eventually swallowed by the very Frankenstein monster he created — the army.
Nyoni is Zimbabwe Independent sub-editor. He writes in his personal capacity. — firstname.lastname@example.org