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Mugabe: Hero or villain?

Simayedwa Moyo Political analyst

THE death at 95 of former president of Zimbabwe Robert Gabriel Mugabe (pictured) has evoked varying emotions in the country. On one hand, there are those who revered and deified him and took his word as the law of life to them. Yet there were others on the other hand who never regarded him as their leader.
Somewhere in the middle, there were some who used to love him, but later grew to loath him as they watched him develop into a monster they never expected.

Also, within the middle are those who were ambivalent and indifferent when he was alive and when he is dead. This is an indication of his effect on people while alive, and this is being manifested also in his death. Emotions are mixed and at odds in the country and beyond as a result of his death. Some have gone as far as saying that Mugabe divided people when he was alive and he continues to do so when he is dead.

Having been a somewhat diligent follower of news updates on my android phone, which I have reluctantly allowed to gather and alert me on the freshest news around, especially of my home country Zimbabwe, I have noticed how divided and diverse emotions surrounding his passing away are.

In addition, I have received numerous updates on my Twitter account as a result of having followed a lot of politically active and attuned individuals. I have not mentioned the WhatsApp texts, audio and video clips sent to me solicited or otherwise. Whether it is news updates, Twitter, or WhatsApp, I could not help but realise how divided and emotionally confused the Zimbabwean nation is about Mugabe and his passing away.

This confusion to me portrays only one fact: Mugabe was an enigma to most of the population. He is an enigma who successfully made those who revered him do so implicitly without questioning their allegiance to him, at least not overtly. Yet on the other hand, Mugabe evoked even those innate but docile feelings of utter abhorrence for him as a person and his policies. Those who did not get an opportunity of disclosing the feelings for him while he was alive, are doing so at his death.

On another level, this goes to show how heavy-handed Mugabe was to those he considered dissenting from his world view. As evidence is abundant on how he dealt with such, only history will be in a position to comprehensively encapsulate this. So in between these two contrasted groups are those who are indifferent to his existence, either by not caring who he was alive or dead. Closely are those who are thankful to the power of death for having visited the former president.

One can ask why there is such a divided view of a strong-willed leader, eloquent and well-educated man, by international standards. One will be tempted to assume that with such a well-read mind, Mugabe would be one of the most emotionally intelligent people, who would know how to navigate the human relations maze. Those who had physical encounters with him say that he was a good listener. I am not sure whether the “good listening” translated into accommodating and tolerating others’ views different from his. The bigger picture of his history casts doubts on this.

Reading an article by Siphosami Malunga, I got a glimpse of Mugabe as a child. Malunga, quoting from James Chikerema, who was Mugabe’s close relative, an uncle, I guess, said that Mugabe as a child would throw tantrums if things were not done his way, or anything related to not getting what he wanted. My guess is that some may not have seen this as relevant to how Mugabe became a man we all know.

Many times, I always like to see an adult from a child prospectively or a child from an adult retrospectively. When I look at a child now, I can almost guess what sort of a person they may become in their later life, or vice versa, when I look at an adult now, I can guess what sort of person they may have been in their earlier life.

Reading an excerpt from Malunga, I was not overly surprised by what I knew Mugabe to have been in his later life. Those tantrums that he threw as a child, became something of a grand scale when he became our leader, and these manifested in very diabolical ways, in most instances, especially towards his policies on opponents.

Those who were affected by his wrath at diverse periods and spaces, have nothing good to say about him posthumously. Some of the things I have watched and listened to, are not kind by any measure. This is because a lot of people hate him so much such that they are using his death as a platform to vent whatever feelings they had bottled against him over the years of his long rule. Despite all that, there are many who loved him till death, or still love him. Therefore, it is only natural to see why there would be such national emotional confusion at his passing away.

When Mugabe gave up his teaching career in Ghana and joined the liberation struggle in the late fifties, according to Cephas Msipa’s book, In Pursuit of Freedom and Justice, Mugabe was hailed by many in the NDP as the bright and eloquent guy, who managed to express his thoughts not only intelligibly but had a good command of English. To some, even at that point he was seen as an eligible leader within the party structures.

As history tells us, when Zanu was formed and he landed the portfolio of secretary-general, he did it so well that many in his circle wished him higher. This is why it was not difficult for him when the opportunity availed itself after Herbert Chitepo was assassinated for him to take over as the party leader, in place of Ndabaningi Sithole.

His academic excellence coupled with his oratory gift made him an incontestable candidate. However, we know from the records of history that some in the Zanla structures did not take well to Mugabe taking over as a leader. It would be interesting to know what these men had seen, besides them just disliking him and perhaps seeing themselves as leaders in his stead.

My qualified guess is that there may have been some personality traits and temperament they did not think were consistent with being a leader of his stature. Maybe history will tell, we wait patiently. At present, all we know is that those men opposed to his leadership paid dearly for their dissenting views, personally and politically. Some died like paupers, some were made to recant their former stance of him and swore unwavering allegiance.

Mugabe was one of the proponents at the Lancaster House conference negotiations in London in 1979. Although Mugabe had jointly led the negotiations with Joshua Nkomo as Patriotic Front of their two organisations, Zanu and Zapu respectively, it was the Mugabe’s side which was more radical and impatient with the conditions in which the negotiations were premised. Naturally, for those who had considered Nkomo’s approach as soft and too lenient, they found Mugabe to be the hero in his approach and his vehemence.

At independence, Mugabe was unquestionably able and a breath of fresh air in a country that had known repression of the black race. To some of us who knew very little about the country’s politics at independence, we only came to hear of Mugabe after he had been declared a winner of the 1980 elections.

To be honest, I had had a stint of singing campaign songs as a lad, following the older ones in the area I grew up in. The area was predominantly Zapu and it was only meaningful that all I knew was Nkomo and Zapu and Zipra. So when Mugabe was declared a winner, as much as I knew very little, I did not have a clue as to what that would mean in the grand scheme of things.

You will be right to think that at that point, not knowing was as good as not caring who the leader was. And yet, there were those who knew better and they either foresaw the ramifications of Mugabe’s election right there and then. These prayed and hoped for the better. I can confidently assume that there were those who were building an edifice of reverence and deification for Mugabe.

Being the only well-educated and widely read chap then amongst his colleagues, there was only one place for him, becoming an absolute leader, maybe short of a god. I say this because former vice-president Joice Mujuru hinted on that in one of her many interviews when she was deposed from her post. Because of his academic excellence, Mugabe became the commandment of life to many. They feared him and his word was law to them. This sort of situation creates two sides of the same coin.

One side was that people around him who lifted him up such that they created him to be a very powerful individual whose command would not be questioned. This is a recipe for disaster. No human being is infallible, but he was made to be by his guys such that there may not have been checks and balances of his ideas and policies.

How and to whom do you make someone you revere answerable and accountable? He becomes the law to himself. Secondly, Mugabe had extremely loyal ‘yes men’ whom he came to trust so much. Because he was so lifted up high by those around him, causing him to lose touch with the realities of everyday life, thus he also accepted everything and anything his loyal guys fed him.

As one can see, neither of these two sides are ideal. But to those who loved and adored him, there were no question to be asked, maybe only asking how to do his bidding. Or, should I say that those around him soon realised who he really was a ruthless, heartless and power-mongering egomaniac and toed the line without anyone demanding it. They know better. As for the rest of us, he was their hero. They are still exuberantly and effusively singing his praises at his death as they did when he was alive.

Mugabe a villain
Is it not a painful irony that a country will see an angel Gabriel in Mugabe yet by the same token some see Azrael, an angel of death, in the same Mugabe? Indeed, that is how he was in his life to many and he remains the same in death. To some he gave life, to some he crushed dissent with death. The dissenters and those he was told were dissenters could not co-exist with him, they had to die once and for all. These are the memories.

The Matabeleland atrocities and massacres are one such massive act which can determine whether he is seen as a hero or villain. Mugabe labelled such a long, calculated and deliberate action against the people of Matabeleland and Midlands “a moment of madness.”

I am not sure by whose measure he gauged that moment of madness, because those who were subjected to such torture and excruciating period saw it as an eternity. To those he persecuted using the army trained by North Koreans, the Fifth Brigade, also known as Gukurahundi (The rain that washes away the chaff), he can only appear like a dark cloud hanging over them by a ruthless, conscience-seared and blood-thirsty egomaniac.

Incidentally, the same term, according to Fay Chung in her book, Re-Living the Second Chimurenga, had been used pre-independence when Zanla was in Mozambique. She states that the strategy of Gukurahundi entails violent and physical elimination of enemies and opponents. It connotes nothing positive, rather it implies getting rid of the chaff not deemed useful, thus it is consigned to non-existence.

It, therefore, can be argued that that was the sole aim of the 5 Brigade when it swept into parts of Matabeleland and Midlands in the early 1980s. As those who encountered them firsthand and saw their tactics testify, they were not trained for combative action, but were trained to kill, maim, mutilate and exterminate defenceless Ndebeles accused of not only sympathising with the dissidents, but being dissidents themselves. This is another area history owes us, the full scope of understanding how the dissidents were created, sponsored and deployed. l To be continued next week.

Moyo writes in his personal capacity. Views expressed here are his as a result of being a silent spectator and listener over the years and seeing the history of Zimbabwe and that of Africa unfold. — Simamoyo@hotmail.com.

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