Mugabe’s unheroic legacy


THE late Robert Mugabe was indeed a hero in resisting by force and then through statesmanship bringing an end in 1980 to white majority rule in what was then Rhodesia. But some 15 years into his almost forty years of rule, he ceased to be heroic.

The sidelining of his fellow insurgency leader Joshua Nkomo led to massacres of Nkomo’s minority Matabele tribe. Mugabe’s Shona people came to dominate the new Zimbabwe’s politics and military. After seven years as prime minister, Mugabe won the presidency and became increasingly autocratic. It was always something of a mystery that the international community chose to overlook the killing of up to 30,000 members of the Matabele people in a five-year campaign — the so-called Gukurahundi massacres — by the Zimbabwean military. While these killings were taking place, Mugabe was being praised around the world for raising the standards of health and education and for his tolerance of white farmers, born and bred in the country who regarded themselves as Zimbabweans.

But the tide began to turn in 1995 when corruption and mismanagement dogged government finances. As economic troubles mounted and with them social unrest, Mugabe hit upon the takeover and redistribution of the large and profitable white-owned farms. The initial compensation offered to these farmers quickly morphed into armed takeovers and sequestration by so-called “veterans” of the long struggle for independence. The land distribution might have worked had the farmlands which had been a major source of exports and national wealth, remained in competent hands. Instead however many were parceled out to smallholders who lacked expertise and machinery to sustain a profitable agricultural sector.

From around the turn of the century, Zimbabwe was on the economic skids. Its finances descended into chaos and its currency collapsed. Even among his own Shona tribe there was growing unrest. Only the coterie of loyalists around the ageing president could maintain a comfortable standard of living. Mugabe himself kept suitcases stuffed with millions of dollars around his residences. Two cleaners were prosecuted for stealing one case with several hundred thousand dollars.

Mugabe was finally ousted from power in 2017 by his former protégé President Emmerson Mnangagwa and was allowed abroad for medical treatment. He died last week aged 95 in a Singapore hospital. Mnangagwa declared the late president a national hero and wanted to give him a state funeral followed by interment in the capital Harare’s National Heroes Acre. However, Mugabe’s family, still bitter at the old man’s ouster, refused insisting his funeral be a private ceremony and he be buried alongside his family in his home village of Kutama.

Nothing can take away from Mugabe his dogged leadership in the bitter independence struggle, nor his statesmanship in bring an end to white rule at the Lancaster House conference in London. But once he had followed the path of so many other African leaders immediately after independence, his tribalism, his dictatorial style, intolerance of dissent, corruption and economic illiteracy tipped his country into hyperinflation and financial ruin. Having brought about Zimbabwe’s freedom, he then went on to divide and destroy a nation that should be among Africa’s most prosperous. With the best will in the world, Mugabe’s disastrous four decades in power cannot be considered heroic. That some Zimbabweans still believe they were, clouds the country’s prospects of recovery.