Robert Mugabe: Hero or Villain?

Robert Mugabe, former president of Zimbabwe, assumed power in April 1980; in September 2019, he died in a hospital in Singapore. That, after nearly forty years in power, Mugabe believed that the healthcare situation in his own country was not good enough for him speaks volumes of the legacy that Mugabe leaves behind. Very few people in Zimbabwe will lament his passing. Yet, it could have been all very different. 

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born in 1924 in what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), a few months after the territory had become a British Crown colony under the control of a minority of Europeans, primarily British. This minority systematically sought to exclude the indigenous from any political input into the country, which was typical of colonial rule, but also over time introduced laws that were, in effect, a form of apartheid. 

Mugabe was an intelligent individual, becoming a teacher while studiously pursing academics, ultimately possessing seven degrees. After teaching in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Mugabe moved to Ghana, Africa’s first independent country. It was here that he met his first wife and imbibed the spirit of Pan-Africanism and radical politics from Ghana’s energetic leader, Kwame Nkrumah. 

Returning to his country in 1960, Robert Mugabe threw himself into the fight for liberation from the racist minority regime. One of his first speeches linked Ghana’s independence with the adoption of Marxism and extolled the ideology as the way by which the black majority would be freed from oppression. He was soon elected public secretary of the National Democratic Party and moved to develop a radical youth league to advance liberation. The party was banned in 1961, to be replaced by the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) under the leadership of Joshua Nkomo. However, Mugabe grew frustrated by what he saw was Nkomo’s moderation and began publicly discussing starting a guerrilla war for independence. In 1963, he founded the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) but was arrested by the Rhodesians and sent to prison for ten years. 

While in prison, the white minority under the leadership of Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence from Britain on 11 November 1965 and declared a Republic of Rhodesia. A protracted guerrilla war, with the white regime pitted against a growing black insurgency developed as the 1970s progressed. In 1974, Mugabe was allowed to leave prison and rapidly moved to consolidate his position. Using Maoist tactics, ZANU’s armed wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army slowly but surely gained control of whole swathes of Rhodesia and by the end of the 1970s the precarious military and economic situation in Rhodesia compelled the Smith government into peace talks. 

On April 18, 1980, Rhodesia became independent as the Republic of Zimbabwe, with Mugabe elected prime minister, after defeating Nkomo in elections. It is true that people speak of a “honeymoon” period for Mugabe, when Zimbabwe began to introduce mass education, a decent healthcare system and a generally favourable environment for foreign investment. Yet very early on Mugabe’s ruthlessness became evident. When it was believed that Nkomo’s supporters continued to operate in the south-west of the country, Mugabe unleashed what was to become known as the “Gukurahundi” (roughly, “the early rain that washes away the chaff”). Between early 1983 to late 1987, the Fifth Brigade, a unit trained by the North Koreans, systematically moved through Matabeland, carrying out numerous atrocities against real or perceived enemies of Mugabe. Also known as the Matabeland Massacres, up to 30,000 Zimbabweans lost their lives in this period. 

Elsewhere however the economy generally prospered, although Mugabe did little to address the chronic inequalities in the country, especially the fact that the small white minority owned the vast majority of arable land. Yet by the mid-1990s the farming, mining and manufacturing sectors were performing relatively well. Politically however, Mugabe was in trouble as widespread discontent against corruption and Mugabe’s one-party constitution (established in 1987) developed. As inflation grew, a civil servant strike for better pay brought into focus the public's growing anger. 

In 1998, Mugabe requested other countries (particularly Britain) to fund a new land redistribution programme, viewing this as a populist measure that might regain him support. However, due to chronic corruption in previous projects, Zimbabwe failed to raise sufficient funding. The transfer of farms for personal use by Zimbabwe's political class, including members of Mugabe's own family and senior officials. Farms that were acquired were not used to resettle landless peasants but rather taken over by politically connected people. A study of commercial farms in this period found that over half the redistributed land had gone to absentee owners living in the urban areas and uninterested in farming. 

Two years later, the government held a referendum on the new constitution, which would have empowered the government to obtain land compulsorily and without compensation. However, it was defeated, 55% to 45%. From then on, Mugabe went into panic mode and started the precipitous collapse of Zimbabwe while clinging to power. A pro-Mugabe organisation, the so-called Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association began violently occupying white-owned farms under the "Fast-Track Land Reform Programme". Mugabe ordered the police to stand by and watch. 

The effect on Zimbabwe was disastrous. The national economy contracted by 40% and inflation reached 66,000%. It was during this period that Zimbabwe issued a 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollars banknote, which was worth circa 40 American cents. Note that when Mugabe took power in 1980 the Zimbabwean dollar was roughly equivalent to the US dollar. 

In 2008 after losing the presidential election to Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, Mugabe refused to hand over power. Widespread violence against opponents of Mugabe became the norm as the economy continued to collapse. Subsequent elections were farcical and in no way reflected any semblance of democracy. By this time however, Mugabe was senile and not running the country. Rather, his wife Grace and a clique around her manipulated the situation and sought to consolidate power. All eyes were on the 93-year-old “father of the nation” and what would happen to the country once he ultimately died. 

Jostling for power saw former First Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa and veteran politicians confronting the widely reviled Grace Mugabe. With Grace’s active support, Mugabe sacked Mnangagwa in November 2017, plunging the country into crisis. This effectively left Grace Mugabe as the heir apparent. However, the military supported Mnangagwa. After Mnangagwa fled to South Africa to escape threats made against him and his family he called on Zimbabweans to abandon the Mugabes. Zimbabwean army chief General Constantino Chiwenga, on an official visit to China, was advised by the Chinese that Mugabe had ordered his arrest upon his return to Zimbabwe. Soldiers loyal to Chiwenga overpowered the police at Harare airport, enabling him to return to the country. 

Chiwenga quickly announced that the military would intervene in order to “protect the Zimbabwean revolution”. The statement was broadcast on television across the country. Within a day or so armoured vehicles were seen in Harare and on the 14th November armed soldiers took over the state broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. The army then began arresting senior allies of the Mugabes and his own party subsequently sacked Robert Mugabe, while his wife and twenty of her allies were expelled. On 21st November, 2017, a joint session of Parliament with the full Senate began impeachment proceedings against Mugabe and began investigating him for serious misconduct; failure to obey, uphold and defend the Constitution; wilful violation of the Constitution; and the inability to perform the functions of the Office because of physical or mental incapacity. That same day, Mugabe resigned and ended his 37-year rule, with Mnangagwa assuming power.

 When Mugabe took power in 1980, he inherited Africa’s second most industrialised country and an enormous amount of goodwill from the international community. His first years were promising economically, although the Matabeleland Massacres revealed a dark side to him very early on. Nonetheless, his early time in power was marked by some impressive social developments for the majority population. However, Mugabe and his inner circle were deeply corrupt and by the 1990s, the average Zimbabwean was chafing against his dictatorial rule. When Mugabe failed to win a referendum on changing the constitution, he went into a full-blown bunker mentality, determined to never surrender power. 

While Mugabe most certainly played a critical role in the liberation of Zimbabwe from minority rule and was important in the fight against apartheid South Africa, his record as leader of the country will go down in history as a generalised failure and disgrace. Mugabe abused Pan-Africanism, turning it into a schema for the mutual support of African dictators. He perverted socialism by turning it into a justification for one-party rule and the corrupt accumulation of wealth for the elites. He also destroyed his own country just so he could stay in power, bringing untold misery to millions of Zimbabweans. 

While Mnangagwa’s statement that ‘his contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten’ is true, this “contribution” can be interpreted in multiple ways. Ultimately, the negativities will most certainly outweigh any possible positive evaluations of Robert Gabriel Mugabe even if, for the sake of convenience, he is buried in Heroes’ Acre in Harare.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.