FOLLOWING the death of former president Robert Mugabe in Singapore, competing and contradicting narratives around his divisive legacy have emerged, reflective of the enigmatic and complex personality of Zimbabwe’s long-time ruler.
The stark ironies and complexities surrounding Mugabe’s 37 years in power—which are consistent threads of his unsettled legacy — are deeply steeped in the millitary coup that toppled him from power in November 2017, paving way for the rise of his trusted lieutenant and long-time protégé, President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Historically, Mugabe, who led Zimbabwe to Independence in 1980 after a protracted liberation struggle, has gone into the annals of history as a leader who meant different things to different people, although some of his critics dispute this.
Resultantly, Mugabe’s conflicted legacy following his death has swung around two polemics: Mugabe the tyrant and Mugabe the revolutionary and Pan-Africanist.
For many in Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s early years in power trigger fond sentiments and a deep sense of nationalism, while his sunset years at the helm invite criticism from those who attribute Zimbabwe’s current economic malaise and checkered governance record to the late president’s ruinous policies.
His early years were also marred by the Gukurahundi massacres, which led to the killing of an estimated 20 000 civilians.It is remarkable that Mugabe sharply divides opinion, with his legacy now a source of competing narratives and polemics.
Beyond Zimbabwe, Mugabe will be remembered for the violence and plunder. Some remember him for the violent land reform programme.
Ironically, Mugabe’s agrarian reforms, which indeed were a thorn in the flesh of the West, endeared him to millions on the continent, who regard him as an eminent Pan-Africanist in the mould of Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and Julius Nyerere, among others.
Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza underlines the paradox and sharp contradictions guiding the leadership and legacy of Mugabe, noting that the long-time ruler, even in death, remains a “complex man”.
“Some people see him as a hero, and some as a villain. Mugabe was a very complex man and the very fact that different people from various walks of life saw him in different shades just goes to reflect his complex nature,” Mandaza observes.
Indeed, the varying shades of Mugabe’s leadership style were easily noticeable when, among other nationalists, he executed the 1970s armed liberation struggle which led to the country’s independence.
Back then, his Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, during the Cold War era, projected him through Western lens as a leader who could not be trusted with power.
Britain’s deep-seated fears at the prospects of a Mugabe victory when Zimbabwe staged its first democratic elections in 1980 were echoed by Rhodesia’s former prime minister Ian Smith who revealed that his thinking around the long-time ruler evolved from his long-held views that Mugabe was a fiery Communist.
Interestingly, before his death in 2007, Smith had been vindicated on his earlier suspicions that Mugabe could turn out to be a disastrous leader. By 2017 when he was toppled in a coup, the economy was in tatters.
“Well, he (Mugabe) is the one who should be tried for genocide. He killed many people, by the thousands. He does not know whether he is coming or going. The black community would tell you that they live better under Smith than under Mugabe,” Smith once told the Associated Press.
At Mugabe’s memorial service held at the National Sports Stadium in Harare last week, several African leaders paid glowing tribute to the veteran leader, while identifying with his ideological inclinations that shaped his diplomatic stance on the international arena.
Among those in attendance was former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings, who described Mugabe as: “A pioneer of black assertiveness and a formidable warrior of the African continent.”
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Equatorial Guinea President Teodore Obuenguema, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi and former Democratic Republic of Congo president Joseph Kabila also attended the service.
China and Russia, which extended millitary support to liberation movements in Zimbabwe and other African countries, were also represented at the service, shunned by Western nations.
This week, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who on behalf of the Sadc bloc brokered the power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and the late opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai after the 2008 disputed poll, heaped praises on the long-time ruler, whom he described as: “A great patriot and a true defender of Africa’s independence.”
Mbeki was speaking at a memorial service organised by the African National Congress in Durban.“He was a great patriot, a defender of Africa’s independence, a defender of Africa’s interests. He was very principled and very brave. He was able to speak out in defence of those (Africa’s) interests.
“That is why many people of the world didn’t want him. For us, he was a fellow combatant and a leader who would never ever abandon our struggle for liberation,” Mbeki said on Tuesday this week.
At home, Mugabe frustrated the efforts of Zapu which was extending millitary support to ANC fighters.While African leaders waxed lyrical about Mugabe’s legacy, the West, in unison, derided Zimbabwe’s former leader as a dictator who shepherded the country to ruin during his 37-year rule. At the time of his death, Mugabe was still barred from visiting Europe and US.
US Foreign Affairs Secretary Mike Pompeo led the chorus of condemnation, and through a tweet, summed up Mugabe’s leadership as characterised by plunder and brutality.
“(Mugabe) devastated a country with enormous potential. (He) slaughtered political opponents in the 1980s, used security forces to abuse the opposition and civil society, enriched his family and inner circle through massive corruption,” Pompeo said.
Political analyst Alexander Rusero, in an attempt to demystify the complexities surrounding Mugabe’s leadership style, spoke of the paradoxical legacy of Mugabe which continues to divide opinion.
“Mugabe’s complexity stems from the fact that he behaved differently to different people. He was a good African and a bad Zimbabwean. Africa loved him for what he said, Zimbabwe disliked him for what he was,” Rusero said.