He was a hero. Once. For the briefest of moments, in the grand scheme of things.
But like too many liberation leaders, he descended into a morass of predictable and tiresome psychosis brought on by a love of power.
Most will forget the hero of African liberation, the vanquisher of Ian Smith, and executioner of Rhodesia’s illegal white regime. It’s an historic fact that for a time Robert Mugabe was championed by the world for fighting racism and liberating his people.
The product of a single-parent household, Mugabe, who died last week aged 95, trained to be a teacher. Imprisoned, then exiled, he returned to take control of his party, commanded a guerilla army, and reinvented himself as a self-styled intellectual, holding six university degrees.Advertisement
At the sun rose on Zimbabwe’s independence, now-president Robert Mugabe called for reconciliation, courted Western governments and retained the confidence of white communities. For a while, Zimbabwe prospered. It was the very postcard of a post-colonial success story, whites and blacks enriched alike. But Mugabe never hid his dislike for multi-party democracy. The democrat quickly turned despot. A devotee of Mao’s China, Mugabe took immediate steps to take Zimbabwe down an abyss of autocracy.
He forced the Zimbabwe African People’s Union to join his Zimbabwe African National Union, creating the ruling ZANU-Patriotic Front.
He then set about systematically removing his political rivals from power, and brutally massacred thousands of his opponents in Matabeleland. Corruption and autocratic rule quickly ruined the fledging economy. The bread basket of Africa became a basket-case. Inflation skyrocketed. Food riots erupted. The ever-scheming Mugabe harnessed this simmering unrest. He unleashed black supporters on the country’s white farmers. He seized their estates, closed their farms. Unrepentant, Mugabe’s grip on the presidency held firm though rigging rumours persisted. Foreign friends became few, and opposition grew.
Though Mugabe and his inner circle amassed large personal wealth with impunity, it was his marriage to his second wife, Grace, a greedy first lady who evaded assault charges using the shield of diplomatic immunity, that was his undoing. Dubbed “Gucci-Grace” and “Dis-Grace”, her antics turned popular public opinion, and more tellingly, the military, against Mugabe.
Mugabe’s right-hand military strong-man took the presidency. The tyranny and terror terminated. And yet, someone, somewhere is reading this and reaching to put pen to paper, fingers to the type, to tell the world about the virtues of comrade Mugabe who fought against an international world order, post-colonial control by proxy and an explanation about “misunderstood heroes”. I hope the children of beautiful Zimbabwe will recall the giants like Joshua Nkomo, a champion of Pan-African liberation who was written out of the script by a narcissistic dictator who knew better but failed to live up to his own intellect, and in so doing failed the people of a nation he’d been instrumental in creating.
Nicholas McGowan has worked for the United Nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.