Robert Mugabe, liberation hero turned despot | Daily News

Robert Mugabe, liberation hero turned despot

Robert Mugabe during his swearing-in for a seventh term as Zimbabwe's President  in Harare in 2013.
Robert Mugabe during his swearing-in for a seventh term as Zimbabwe's President in Harare in 2013.

Zimbabwe: Robert Mugabe, the former freedom fighter-turned-wily and ruthless autocrat who ruled the southern African nation of Zimbabwe for 37 years before he was forced out in 2017 following a military takeover, died Friday. He was 95 years old.

“It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwe’s founding father and former President, Cde Robert Mugabe,” President Emmerson Mnangagwa said in announcing the death on Twitter. “Mugabe was an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten. May his soul rest in eternal peace.”

Mugabe came to power in the wake of Zimbabwe’s battle for independence from Britain in 1980, promising prosperity and democracy only to undermine both in his single-minded pursuit of political dominance. Though initially celebrated as a liberator, the Savile Row-suited (at least until international sanctions put a stop to his frequent U.K. visits) dictator’s most enduring legacy is a once-promising nation crippled by corruption and mismanagement.

Mugabe was the only leader Zimbabwe had known until Vice President Mnangagwa succeeded him in elections in 2018. A year later, the country still staggers under massive debts, a worthless currency and an impoverished population, all directly related to Mugabe’s time in power. Residents of the capital, Harare, only have access to running water once a week, and many rural communities have no electricity at all. The education system, once the best in southern Africa, has collapsed.

Mugabe’s death follows an extended stay in a Singaporean hospital, where he was being treated for an undisclosed condition that, over the last few years of his life, required annual trips abroad for health care. His treatment abroad earned him criticism at home as Zimbabwe’s public health system crumbled for lack of government investment.

The confirmation of Mugabe’s passing puts an end to persistent speculation. Rumours of his death were so frequent in Zimbabwe that he once bragged about besting Jesus: “I have died many times—that’s where I have beaten Christ. Christ died once and resurrected once,” he said on his 88th birthday.

In September 2016, just after another such rumour sent Twitter into a tailspin, he told reporters, with his signature Cheshire-cat grin, “It is true that I was dead. And I resurrected. As I always do.” Nonetheless, Mugabe’s final days in power were marked by a visible decline: At the opening of Parliament in September 2015, he launched into the same State of the Nation speech he had delivered just a few weeks prior. Assembled parliamentarians either didn’t notice, or didn’t dare comment, until he was finished.

Mugabe first became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980, serving in that role until 1987, when the government amended the Constitution and he was declared president and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces.

It gave him the power to dissolve Parliament, declare martial law and run for as many terms as he wanted. But he was ousted from power in November 2017 in a coup d'état after the military put him under house arrest amid fears he would appoint his wife Grace as his successor during an internal power struggle that led to Mnangagwa being sacked. Robert Mugabe rose to power as leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union, which fought a war against white minority rule in what was then called Rhodesia. The militants won the war in 1979, achieving universal suffrage and paving the way for Mugabe's victory in the 1980 general election.

He was awarded the Honorary Knight Grand Cross in the Order of the Bath only for the honour to be withdrawn in 2008.

In 2017 Mugabe was controversially granted immunity from prosecution - with cast-iron assurances that his safety would be protected in his home country as part of the deal that led to his resignation.

Mugabe, then 93, told negotiators he did not want to live in exile and wanted to die in Zimbabwe.

Some hailed Mugabe as a liberation hero. Others dismissed him as a “monster”. This suggests that Mugabe will be as divisive a figure in death as he was in life.

The official mantra of the Zimbabwe government and its Zimbabwe African National Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) will emphasise his leadership of the struggle to overthrow Ian Smith’s racist settler regime in what was then Rhodesia. It will also extol his subsequent championing of the seizure of white-owned farms and the return of land into African hands.

In contrast, critics will highlight how – after initially preaching racial reconciliation after the liberation war in December 1979 – Mugabe threw away the promise of the early independence years. He did this in several ways, among them a brutal clampdown on political opposition in Matabeleland in the 1980s, and Zanu-PF’s systematic rigging of elections to keep he and his cronies in power. They’ll also mention the massive corruption over which he presided, and the economy’s disastrous downward plunge during his presidency.

Inevitably, the focus will primarily be on his domestic record. Yet many of those who will sing his praises as a hero of African nationalism will be from elsewhere on the continent. So where should we place Mugabe among the pantheon of African nationalists who led their countries to independence?

Most African countries have been independent of colonial rule for half a century or more. The early African nationalist leaders were often regarded as gods at independence. Yet they very quickly came to be perceived as having feet of very heavy clay.

Nationalist leaders symbolised African freedom and liberation. But few were to prove genuinely tolerant of democracy and diversity. One party rule, nominally in the name of “the people”, became widespread. In some cases, it was linked to interesting experiments in one-party democracy, as seen in Tanzania under Julius Nyerere and Zambia under Kenneth Kaunda.

Even in these cases, intolerance and authoritarianism eventually encroached. Often, party rule was succeeded by military coups.

In Zimbabwe’s case, Mugabe proved unable to shift the country, as he had wished, to one-partyism. However, this did not prevent Zanu-PF becoming increasingly intolerant over the years in response to both economic crisis and rising opposition. Successive elections were shamelessly perverted.

When, despite this, Zanu-PF lost control of parliament in 2008, it responded by rigging the presidential election in a campaign of unforgivable brutality. Under Mugabe, the potential for democracy was snuffed out by a brutal despotism.

On the political front, the rule of some leaders – like Milton Obote in Uganda and Siad Barre in Somalia – created so much conflict that coups and crises drove their countries into civil war. Zimbabwe under Mugabe was spared this fate – but perhaps only because the political opposition in Matabeleland in the 1980s was so brutalised after up to 30 000 people were killed, that they shrank from more conflict. Peace, then, was merely the absence of outright war.

Some leaders, notably Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, are still revered for their commitments to national independence and African unity. This is despite the fact that, domestically, their records were marked by failure. By 1966, when Nkrumah was displaced by a military coup, his one-party rule had become politically corrupt and repressive.

Despite this, Nyerere always retained his reputation for personal integrity and commitment to African development. Both Nkrumah’s and Nyerere’s ideas continue to inspire younger generations of political activists, while other post-independence leaders’ names are largely forgotten.

Will Mugabe be similarly feted by later generations? Will the enormous flaws of his rule be forgotten amid celebrations of his unique role in the liberation of southern Africa as a whole? - AGENCIES


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