When Zimbabwe celebrated its independence on April 18 1980, the newly elected Robert Mugabe received a succinct message from a staunch supporter. “You have inherited a jewel,” declared Julius Nyerere, the then Tanzanian president. “Keep it that way.”
Zimbabwe’s founding president, who has died aged 95 in a Singapore hospital two years after his overthrow by coup, ignored the advice. Throughout his nearly four decades in power, he rigged elections and sanctioned torture, crushed opposition and embezzled billions of dollars. The consequences were disastrous.
Life expectancy fell from 60 at independence to a low of 44 in 2002, although the Aids epidemic in southern Africa meant that was not unique to Zimbabwe. At least 1m Zimbabweans fled to neighbouring South Africa in search of jobs and sanctuary. Hyperinflation in 2008 wiped out savings and made pensions worthless. And a country that, at independence, could boast of food self-sufficiency now regularly requires foreign aid to feed its people.
The fall in production was the result of Mugabe’s often-violent seizure of most of the country’s 5,000 white-owned farms. Ostensibly this was done to redress a historical injustice that had left the country’s best land in the hands of whites. The reality was that most of the seized properties were given to Mugabe’s cronies.
But Mugabe was no ordinary despot, no run-of-the-mill dictator. Inside the political thug he undoubtedly became, there was a very different persona. For all his rants against the British he was a closet Anglophile, a man who loved to watch cricket at the ground that adjoined his official residence in the capital, Harare.
He admired the British royal family and loathed the Labour party. He spoke fondly of Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher and regarded Christopher Soames, the last British governor, who oversaw the independence election in 1980, as a friend. He spoke excellent English, had no fewer than seven university degrees, most of them taken by correspondence courses, some during the nearly 11 years he spent in detention.
To meet him was to come face to face with an icon, a man in possession of the aura that surrounds those who wield absolute power — and who are unfettered in its use. That was enhanced by the fact that he was a living link with pre-independence colonial Zimbabwe, the last survivor of a small group of African politicians who endured detention without trial and went on to lead their countries to independence.
In this context Mugabe’s age became an asset and not a liability, a reason for veneration rather than grounds for revolt. His ministers were not only indebted to him, for all were beneficiaries of his patronage, they were in awe and afraid of him. Far from acting as a constraint on his power, they became complicit in a web of corruption. Above all, he was a canny politician, skilfully navigating the ethnic and clan rivalries that bedevil Zimbabwe’s politics, ruthless and brutal in his treatment of opponents and shrewd in his use of patronage.
The bleak state of Zimbabwe today is in stark contrast to the cautious optimism that marked the birth of the new country in 1980. The guerrilla war triggered by white Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence in November 1965 was over. Economic sanctions had been lifted and reconciliation was in the air.
“If yesterday I fought you as an enemy,” Mugabe asserted in his eve-of-independence speech, universally acclaimed for its theme of reconciliation and forgiveness, “today you have become a friend and ally . . . If yesterday you hated me, you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me, and me to you . . . The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten.”
Robert Gabriel Mugabe had come a long way from his humble beginnings.
Born in Kutama in north-west Mashonaland in 1924, and educated at the local mission school, he was soon singled out by his Jesuit teachers as a pupil of rare talent. But he was also a loner who made no close friends, and missed the presence of his father, who had walked out on the family when Robert was a boy.
For 15 years he taught at schools around the country. It was not until 1960 that he entered politics, inspired by a visit to newly independent Ghana, where he met and later married Sally Hayfron, a fellow teacher, who died in 1992. Now in his thirties, he became publicity secretary for the party headed by the man he would later do his best to destroy — Joshua Nkomo, soon to be leader of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu).
He broke with Nkomo in 1963 to co-found the rival Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu). Both men were detained the following year. It was while in detention that Mugabe was given the devastating news that his only son, Nhamodzenyika, had died. His request for parole in order to attend the boy’s funeral in Accra was turned down.
Mugabe was released from prison in 1974 along with other detained leaders, as part of an international effort to end an intensifying guerrilla war that threatened white rule. Early the following year he slipped across the border into neighbouring Mozambique, the rear base for Zanu’s military wing; Zapu’s fighters operated from Zambia, and the two parties nominally united as the Patriotic Front.
Successful negotiations at London’s Lancaster House in 1979 paved the way to independence elections the next year. Mugabe triumphed. But his victory reflected the faultline that runs through the country’s politics. Mugabe was Shona, while Nkomo was Ndebele. Zanu won 57 of the 80 seats at stake (20 seats were reserved for whites); in Ndebele-dominated south, Zapu secured 20 seats.
Within months, the dream of a new era had turned into a nightmare. Mugabe began preparing for the elimination of Zapu and the subjugation of the province of Matabeleland, the party’s stronghold.
In 1982, he ordered the deployment of the North Korean-trained 5 Brigade, equipped with a list of Zapu officials obtained by Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation. It was the equivalent of a death list. Over the next two years, approximately 10,000 men, women and children were slaughtered in what was called gukurahundi — a Shona word that means spring rains that wash away the chaff. Although British diplomats were aware of what was happening, they made no public protest about this atrocity.
Ten years later, Mugabe was a guest of Queen Elizabeth and given an honorary knighthood, which was rescinded in 2008 on the advice of the government.
Mugabe did some good. He expanded the pre-colonial education system to bring decent education to far greater numbers. Long after the country had fallen into economic ruin, the system continued to produce some of the best-educated children on the continent.
Still, his ruthless and callous side was displayed again in 2005 when he launched a campaign to purge the urban areas of the increasing number of jobless flooding the cities in search of work. In Operation Murambatsvina — “clear out the rubbish” — the UN estimated that at least 700,000 people were left without even rudimentary shelter as police razed shanties and bulldozed vendors’ stalls.
By then it had become apparent that only force would dislodge Mugabe. In the run-up to the 2008 election, the leader of the country’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, was publicly assaulted by police, leaving his face and head battered and swollen.
As the election drew closer, the violence and intimidation got worse. A hundred MDC election agents had disappeared and Tsvangirai’s supporters were beaten up in their thousands. The MDC leader felt he had no option but to withdraw from the presidential poll.
“The MDC will never be allowed to rule this country — never ever . . . only God will remove me,” declared Mugabe.
Mugabe’s lust for wealth went beyond the boundaries of Zimbabwe. In the late 1990s he sent thousands of soldiers from the Zimbabwe national army to fight on the side of the Kinshasa government in the Congo war. This was no act of solidarity. Rather it was part of a lucrative deal, in which Mugabe and his generals were rewarded for their efforts with mining and timber leases in a mineral rich country with extensive forests.
By the end he had become a parody of a vain dictator, dying his hair to keep the signs of ageing at bay and meticulously trimming a tiny moustache. He commandeered the national airline for his frequent trips abroad, and moved into a palatial residence that cost millions of dollars. In retirement, he complained bitterly that the state had not given him enough money for repairs to the Chinese-style mansion’s blue-tiled roof.
As age took its toll, Mugabe’s second wife Grace, whom he married in 1996, emerged as a contender for the presidency. Forty years his junior, mother of his three children, unpopular but ambitious, she could have been a formidable candidate. If he had not married her, he probably would have died as president.
In the end, it took the intervention of the army in 2017, bringing tanks on the streets of Harare to eventually persuade a stubborn old man to step down. Meanwhile the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, 74, the former guerrilla and longtime Mugabe confidant, is saddled with a problem that will not go away: his role as Mugabe’s point man in the gukurahundi massacre.
He has inherited not an African jewel but a country that is getting dangerously close to becoming an African basket case, its economy shattered, its foreign debt unpayable, its assets squandered. It will take Zimbabwe many years to recover from Mugabe’s poisonous legacy.