The “icon of liberation” who led Zimbabwe to independence also drove the nation into poverty.
Obituaries of Robert Mugabe, the former leader of Zimbabwe who died in Singapore on Friday at the age of 95, tend to divide his history into three eras: the revolutionary leader of the liberation struggle against white minority rule; the statesman who negotiated with Britain and the white rulers for the creation of
Zimbabwe and soon became its first leader; the despot who ruthlessly crushed his opponents and drove his land into penury.
But it is hard to determine when one period began or another ended. There were signs of the budding tyrant already in Mr. Mugabe’s dealings with revolutionary
comrades during the liberation wars of the 1960s and ’70s.
And when Mr. Mugabe was finally overthrown by the military in November 2017, long after he had laid waste to his once-prosperous land and revealed his dictatorial face, the generals treated him with almost reverential deference.
Announcing “Comrade” Mugabe’s death on Friday, his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, spoke only of the “icon of liberation,” with no mention of his ouster.
That reverence for the leaders of liberation struggles, however unfortunate their post-liberation rule, is not unique to Zimbabwe, or to Africa.
The fight against colonial rule invariably becomes the founding narrative of a new nation: It was so in the United States, and even more so in developing nations that achieved independence after World War II.
Mao Zedong’s huge portrait still gazes down on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where the movement against the chairman’s authoritarian legacy was so brutally
crushed, and Fidel Castro is still revered across much of Latin America, though he drove Cuba into economic ruin and more than a million countrymen into exile.
Some African nations have been especially loath to strip the halos off revolutionary heroes, given the instability of countries shaped more by the imperial
designs of European rulers than by ethnic boundaries. Honorifics like “comrade” still echo the romance of revolutionary Pan-African ideologies.
As late as 2015, with Zimbabwe already in ruins and Mr. Mugabe unwelcome in much of the world, the African Union appointed him chairman for the year.
Yet the same zeal, tenacity, loyalty and ruthlessness required to wage a struggle against a colonial power become handicaps in trying to lead a country. Nelson
Mandela in South Africa is among the few revolutionaries who made a smooth transition.
And Mr. Mugabe, partly by virtue of his longevity, must rank among the most spectacular failures, driving a rich, well-educated and promising country to the point where the central bank was printing 100-trillion-dollar bills — that’s $100,000,000,000,000 — that barely covered a bus fare.
Mr. Mugabe was sufficiently different from the caricature of the revolutionary dictator in other ways to ensure that historians will study him closely. He was
a revolutionary who didn’t wear camouflage fatigues; a ruthless and murderous dictator who spent evenings in his earlier years in the State House curled up
with his wife and a Graham Greene novel; an ascetic loner with a passion for learning and an insatiable hunger for power.
– The New York Times.