BSR: The death of Robert Mugabe


I have been battling myself for much of the day. I did not feel anything when the news arrived. I was not sad. But there was no opposite feeling either. I do not think it was indifference. There quite simply wasn’t anything.

Maybe he had “died” times in the past that I had lost a sense of how to feel when it actually happened. But then, as I read comments on social media, I realised I was not alone. Many expressed similar thoughts.

The death of Robert Mugabe, our former president, in the early hours of 6 September 2019 has been described by some as the end of an era.

There’s a case to be made, however, that the era had long ended when he was politically assassinated by his lieutenants in November 2017.

Always sharply dressed, alert and seemingly invincible, Mugabe’s physical deterioration was rapid and visible after his ignominious departure from the highest office in the country. We saw him in a few images shared by his family. He was a pale shadow of his old self you almost felt pity for him.

Perhaps too, it was because, having vacated the stage, his demise was no longer as impactful as it might have been had he still been in power. Many had expressed their emotions in November 2017, when his lieutenants betrayed him most dramatically and controversially.

For two years, the authors of his dethronement have embarrassed themselves by trying to distance themselves from his controversial rule, as if they were never part of it.

One of the first signs was when they stripped him of the “comrade” title, a mark of inclusion in ZANU PF. After 37 years in power, the exclusion meant Mugabe was now just an ordinary man. Then they sought to associate him with the opposition whom they regard as enemies of the state.

It is therefore not without irony that in the hours since his death, they have gone the extra-mile to reclaim and own him. Ever the calculating and cunning one who always saw farther than most of his peers, he had foreseen how they would try to make political capital out of his death. We were told he had signalled his intention not to be buried at the National Heroes Acre, the site of internment for those they declare to be heroes of the nation.

Mugabe’s treatment by his lieutenants mirrors how his legacy divides people around the world. He was revered by some while others found him repugnant. But his death two years after he was forced out of office means some of the hard emotions had lost an edge.

Indeed, there appears to be greater anger towards his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, to the point that some have been suggesting that Mugabe was better – something that was improbable two years ago. But it is also a heavy and damning indictment of his successor.

Is Mugabe an important figure in history? There is no doubt that he is. Few trend on social media as he has done upon his demise. Being important is not dependent on being good or bad. It is whether one has made an impact upon the world or at least, a part of it.

No fair analysis of Mugabe’s long and controversial career would ignore the fact that he did have an influential impact. There’s probably no other person apart from Cecil John Rhodes founder of the country that is now known as Zimbabwe who has had the greatest impact upon it and its people. Ian Douglas Smith, the last real leader of Rhodesia gives both men stiff competition.

For most observers, Mugabe started well in 1980. He preached reconciliation in 1980, long before his great comrade and rival, Nelson Mandela did in the 1990s when became the first democratically elected leader of South Africa. But in its selective amnesia, the world remembers the latter more. Mugabe had a government of national unity in 1980, bringing in adversaries to work together after winning the first democratic elections in the new Zimbabwe. The summer of goodwill didn’t last, however, and that was a sign of the streak of intolerance which marked the rest of his leadership.

The tensions soon deteriorated into an orgy of violence against political opponents and erstwhile partners in government. Mugabe could have transformed the brutal state inherited from the colonial regime. Instead, he embraced and honed it into a lethal machine.

With the world watching and ignoring, thousands in Matabeleland were massacred during Gukurahundi, the darkest chapter in Zimbabwe’s modern history. Mugabe would later call it “a moment of madness”, and it is a great pity that he has gone without saying or doing more to atone for those atrocities. Quite understandably, survivors, victims and relatives of the slain may never forgive him.

For Mugabe, power was an obsession, but in the end, it was also his undoing. He acquired the notoriety of a man who would stop at nothing to acquire and retain it. He took pride in the violence wrought by his subordinates. “Chakadashurwa” (He was thoroughly beaten), he said when Morgan Tsvangirai was beaten and tortured by members of the security forces in March 2007, scenes that shocked the world. It wasn’t nice and that’s a great understatement.

Zimbabwe had inherited a Westminster-type arrangement for government, with a Prime Minister who was answerable to Parliament. Mugabe did not like that arrangement. By 1987, the Constitution had been changed, paving the way for an imperial executive presidency.

Meanwhile, he was intent upon creating a one-party state. His party had paved the way at its historic Congress in 1984. Intellectuals, trade unions, college students and political opponents challenged it. It was never formalised but in the 1990s, with a weak and disjointed opposition, Mugabe enjoyed a relatively easy ride.

Things changed in 1999, however, when the Movement for Democratic Change came on board, led by the man who would become his great nemesis, Morgan Tsvangirai. The presence of a strong opposition brought the worst in Mugabe as he did everything to keep it out of power. Many will remember the orgy of violence in 2008 after he lost the first round of elections to Tsvangirai.

A good dancer knows when to leave the stage, so goes an African saying. If Mugabe was a good dancer, he did not know when to leave the stage. 37 years in power was far too long for anyone, not least Mugabe. He could have left the stage earlier. Instead, he went on and on even when he was reading wrong speeches, probably set up for embarrassment by his lieutenants. His party parliamentarians cheered him on, anyway, great contributors to the rot that now engulfs Zimbabwe. When he slipped and fell coming off a plane from one of his numerous and unpopular foreign trips, his lieutenants chose spin to cover for the obvious weaknesses of old age.

In the early years, Mugabe had pursued social justice policies to great acclaim, improving education and health services for the black majority. I’m a beneficiary and I’m grateful for it.

His government faithfully paid its debts, including odious debts from the colonial regime whose legitimacy should have been challenged at the outset. Multilateral agencies were not enamoured by this social spending. By the 1990s they demanded cutbacks in social spending in return for structural adjustment loans. Mugabe dutifully complied much to the chagrin of a population that began to feel the pinch. Before his death, I was researching Zimbabwe’s debt problem. It’s a sad story that implicates a lot that refuses to take responsibility. It shall come in due course.

The story that gave Mugabe worldwide notoriety was not Zimbabwe’s darkest chapter – Gukurahundi, no. Those were Africans killing each other. It could have been stopped didn’t matter to the international community. Indeed, some Western countries gave his government loans to buy military equipment which he used against his own.

No, it wasn’t those human rights violations. It was, instead, the controversial seizure of white-owned farms from 2000 onwards and the political repression that followed. Indeed, Western countries had given him accolades in the 1990s, an honorary Knighthood and honorary degrees from renowned colleges, even with the dark record of Gukurahundi behind him.

But things might have turned out differently if the Land Question had been handled differently. The first opportunity to do so was at the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference in 1979. The conference retained and protected a patently unjust land distribution system and thus incubated a problem that would later haunt Zimbabwe. It was a quick-fix, which even Mugabe himself had rejected, threatening to abandon Lancaster before his comrades stopped him.

In 1997, Tony Blair’s New Labour Government was naive and arrogant in its handling of the land issue. The current British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has previously been critical of New Labour’s approach to the issue. It hardened positions and set the stage for the chaos that would begin just three years later. Sensing a loss of political power, land became the rallying point for the Mugabe regime and he used it to great effect.

The violent and economically destructive land seizures earned Mugabe notoriety in the Western world but admiration across Africa. Let it be said too, and this is a fact confirmed by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, Mugabe had exercised restraint over the land issue in the early 1990s when the first opportunity came to redistribute the land. The 10-year constitutional protection of commercial farmland had ended. But neighbouring South Africa was negotiating a politically sensitive transition from Apartheid. The story is that Mugabe was persuaded to hold back to avoid upsetting that transition. Apparently, he complied. Credit for this is often buried in politics.

And so, when he did lead he controversial land reform process, he drew notoriety to himself especially for the violence that came with it. It exacerbated Zimbabwe’s challenges. For many Africans on the continent, however, here was a man who was prepared to challenge inequality, a terrible legacy of colonialism and with it defying the powerful West. It wasn’t something that their own leaders were willing or able to do. In Mugabe, they saw an unflinching hero.

But while these Africans saw a great hero, it was ordinary Zimbabweans who paid the price. It should be stated too, that Zimbabweans who benefited from that process were grateful. They celebrate the fact that they returned to their ancestral lands. This is something that those who aren’t beneficiaries do not see, but it is a reality.

And so it is that when at one point, Mugabe strode onto the stage at the inauguration of a South African leader, he got the biggest ovation while at home he was reviled by opponents for ruining the country’s economy. The joke goes that while South Africa inherited great quotations, Zimbabweans inherited the land. It is something that those who compare the “tyrant Mugabe” and the “great Mandela” do not get.

These were the contradictions that marked Mugabe’s political career, contradictions that make his legacy a mixed one – fondly remembered by some while for others, his departure is good riddance of a tyrant.

Once, I compared Mugabe to Julius, a character in Zimbabwean writer Charles Mungoshi’s story, The Hero in the celebrated collection, Coming of the Dry Season. Julius was a student at a boarding school. The food served at the school was horrible. Every year, the students complained but did nothing about it. On this particular occasion, Julius decided to speak out. He was the hero. But this act of heroism earned him expulsion from the school.

As he walked home from school, Julius began to contemplate the challenges of a home run by a strict stepmother. It was a nightmare. Mugabe was being a hero of Africa, earning plaudits but in the end, it was his country that paid the price. His African peers stood by him during the day but dined with the enemy during the night. Their relationships were safe while Mugabe and Zimbabwe were isolated. In this regard, the country’s current leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, like the Bourbons of old France.

Mugabe was a proud man. If he was upset, Mugabe never hesitated to walk away. When the regional body SADC was pressing him hard just before the 2013 elections, Mugabe threatened to leave the organisation. In the process he attacked one of President Zuma’s envoys, Lindiwe Zulu, calling her a “street woman”.

A decade before, after criticism from the Commonwealth, Mugabe had walked away, withdrawing Zimbabwe’s membership. In a fiery speech at a global conference in South Africa, he told the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, another nemesis, to “keep his Britain” while he “kept his Zimbabwe”.

This apparently self-confident or stubborn and isolationist streak probably had deep roots in his personality from an early age. his contemporaries at Kutama Mission tel of a young boy who absolutely hated losing and never took it well when he lost, even a game of tennis. One of his contemporaries, Lawrence Vambe has described him as having been brilliant chap who was, however, a loner who found it hard to make friends. A relative, the late James Chikerema once recounted an anecdote that whenever a young Mugabe got frustrated and annoyed with his fellow colleagues when they were herding cattle back in the day, he would simply select his grandfather’s cattle and herd them alone. This behaviour appeared to manifest in his adult life as a politician.

Yet many, including enemies, acknowledged his brilliance as a man of books. Even as he herded cattle, he would always carry a book, his brother once told his biographer, Heidi Holland. While other comrades played draughts in jail when they were detained without trial by Ian Smith in the 60s and 70s, Mugabe dutifully read books and earned degrees. He also had time to teach others, including the current leader Mnangagwa. It is perhaps not surprising that one of his great contributions in the early years of independence was in the field of education.

The problem is that the gentleman of books and sharp Savile Row suits who loved cricket did not abide by gentlemanly rules in the field of politics. He was a bruiser and a bully and he was proud of it. “We have degrees in violence” he once boasted. He had many lieutenants and foot-soldiers who were willing and ready to do the dirty work during the long reign. He did not stop them. Instead, he occasionally used presidential powers to declare amnesty after periods of violence so that perpetrators were never prosecuted.

Other times he pardoned the violent, as he did in the early 1990s when two men were convicted of attempting to murder Patrick Kombayi, a political opponent, who ironically was his former student during his teaching days. These presidential amnesties and pardons only gave violent men a sense of impunity. No wonder a culture of violence grew during his long rule. It still haunts Zimbabwe, a sad legacy.

He didn’t seem to be motivated by financial gain, at least in his earlier days. But he found it hard to curb the greedy instincts of his own comrades. This bred a debilitating culture of corruption. When one of his cabinet ministers was caught up in the infamous Willowgate Scandal in late 1980s, he issued a pardon a day after his conviction. A culture of corruption grew under his reign and it continues to be a dangerous cancer eroding the economy. He never stopped promising to curb it, but the more he talked, the more it grew.

Wafa Wanaka is a short but loaded statement in the Karanga language. He who has died is good. Once one is dead, his bad deeds go with him, people only speak of the good. After all, he can no longer account for anything, so the logic goes. Critics think it is a custom that has outlived its time in an age of accountability. It is dangerous logic. Perhaps if people know during their lifetime that you can still be held accountable even in death, they might behave if they care for their legacy?

There is probably some force in the view against sugarcoating just because the subject is deceased. That’s why it should be perfectly fine for people to share their grievances even though the subject is no longer here to receive them.

You cannot legislate emotions. You cannot determine whether and when to mourn or not to mourn. If some people aren’t mourning Mugabe it is not because they are bad people. It is probably because he made it impossible for them to mourn him. If it is cruel, present leaders ought to know that this is a fate that awaits them, too. Do good in life and people will remember you for it. Do bad? People will not forget. Some might not even forgive.

Likewise, others have personal reasons for mourning Mugabe and it is not simply because they benefited from his rule. Some are motivated to defend Mugabe, appalled by the bigots who use the cover of Mugabe to spew their bigotry against Africans generally or hypocrites who condone violence and dictatorship elsewhere and are selective in their condemnation. Some may vehemently disapprove of the man’s conduct but they may be sympathetic towards some or all of his ideas. Did Mugabe have ideas that appeal to some well-meaning people? He probably did, which is why some across the continent are honouring him. It is their right to do so and they shouldn’t be persecuted for it.

But it is impossible to ignore the fact that his long reign had many victims, survivors and relatives who still have unanswered questions and feel that if he had answers, he has taken them to the grave. Some victims have never been acknowledged. Others lie in unmarked graves. Some simply disappeared, never to be seen again.

Think of the young family of Itai Dzamara, abducted in March 2015. Or the family of Captain Nleya who disappeared in the 1980s. So too, the family of Patrick Nabanyama. The families of Tichaona Chiminya and Talent Mabika, burnt alive in Buhera during an election campaign. The family of Tonderai Ndira, abducted, tortured and killed in cold blood.

Others have not made it to official reports of state brutality, thousands during Gukurahundi. All these disappearances and killings happened during Mugabe’s reign. Perpetrators roam free. How are the families supposed to react? They deserve respect, too during this sensitive time.

Therefore, as high-sounding intellectuals and politicians pontificate on Mugabe’s legacy in education and other areas, they must be respectful to these people whose pain is a matter of fact, not speculation.

I love the work of Chinua Achebe. I once invoked the story of Ezeulu, the great character in Arrow of God, one of his great works. Ezeulu, the chief priest was unbending and stubborn. When the white governor detained him for months and the villagers did not come to his rescue, Ezeulu decided that he would punish them.

As a chief priest, Ezeulu had the authority to count the passage of time, which signalled the start of the harvest. Ezeulu discounted the time that he had been detained and delayed announcing the harvest ceremony. The crops were rotting in the fields. The community was exasperated.

In the end, purveyors of a new religion, who were trying to gain ground in the community saw an opportunity and advantage. They told desperate villagers that they could turn to the new god. He was forgiving. By his stubbornness, Ezeulu had helped destroy the community by creating poverty and desperation, which forced people to adopt new ways.

In many ways, I saw traits of Ezeulu in Mugabe. He was a fiercely proud man who, like Ezeulu, believed he was always right; who, like Ezeulu, believed his own people did not understand or appreciate him. In the end, he adopted an intransigence which drove the country into poverty and desperation. Still, right to the end, he must have believed he was right and they were wrong. His ardent supporters probably believe it too. Some still do. Achebe’s Ezeulu is a tragic hero. Perhaps Mugabe too qualifies for that title.

At 95, Mugabe was old and unwell. He had spent months in Singapore – another irony of the proud Pan Africanist who spent years advocating the idea of “African solutions for African problems” but who sought healthcare in far off lands, far away from his beloved Africa.

But the events of that dramatic week in November 2017 must have drained him so much. It was the betrayal by men he had trusted that accelerated the demise more than the physical weaknesses of the body. The men and women of medicine can patch up physical weaknesses, but there is no known cure for betrayal. They won’t admit it publicly but their political dagger did the deed.

For Mugabe, power was more than an obsession. It was the fuel that drove him on. Once his formerly trusted lieutenant and generals removed the plug from the socket of political power, Mugabe went on a downward spiral. Power was gone and life would never be the same again. More than once he offered to fix it, believing he had the authority to do so. They ignored him. It must have hurt badly. Not even the financial largesse to assist him physically was enough to atone for the embarrassment of dethronement.

In a life of 95 years, over half of them lived in the public limelight and 37 as leader of the government, one is bound to mean many things to many people. To some Mugabe is a hero. To others, he is a villain. This much is obvious. When all is said and done, the life of Mugabe is not amenable to a whole number. It is a set of different elements, some big, others small, some that appeal and others that repulse, depending on one’s standpoint.

Will history remember him as an important figure in Zimbabwe’s history. On this, I do not think there is much to dispute. Are there lessons to be drawn from his long life and political career? I have no doubt there are – both the good and the bad. It would be remiss of us if we did not identify and learn from these lessons, to advance the good and to avoid repeating the bad.

As the day concluded, I think I began to understand why the demise of the former president meant little to me and perhaps others. Mugabe had become yesterday’s problem. As a people, we have a clear and present problem, and it is no longer Robert Mugabe. It is in that problem, the current leadership, where our thoughts and emotions are heavily invested. And those investments are seriously imperilled.