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Robert Mugabe and his legacy: A mixed one

A visitor arrives with a wreath at the Singapore Casket funeral parlor building where the body of Robert Mugabe was being held on September 07, 2019, in Singapore.         — Photo: AP    A visitor arrives with a wreath at the Singapore Casket funeral parlor building where the body of Robert Mugabe was being held on September 07, 2019, in Singapore.         — Photo: AP  

Robert Mugabe died on September 06 in Singapore after a long illness. He was 95. He was one of those leaders who emerged in the period between the late 1940s through to the early 1980s and were celebrated as national liberators. But Mugabe is a sort of a personality who evokes mixed reactions, even making many feel very uncomfortable. He began his political career as a leader in the quest for the independence of Zimbabwe what was then known as Rhodesia. As a revolutionary guerrilla leader, he fought white minority rule and spent years in prison as a political prisoner.  He is quite often compared to South Africa's freedom fighter Nelson Mandela.

He ruled Zimbabwe from its independence in 1980 for 37 years until he was deposed in 2007. He was a permanent revolutionary but at times killed the freedom for which he had worked so hard in the region. He was as divisive in his death as he was in life. As independent Zimbabwe's first prime minister and later as its president Mugabe promised democracy, reconciliation and a brighter future all its citizens. But the hope that accompanied independence in 1980 degenerated into despotism, corruption, violence and economic disaster as Mugabe increasingly became authoritarian.

It was in prison he developed his political views - his militant opposition to white minority rule in what was then Rhodesia. By the time he came out of the prison he had already developed quite well-articulated political views and was strongly opposed to any compromise or accommodation with the apartheid and the white minority rule. While he was in prison he was chosen as President of ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). Mugabe politicised ZANU to an unprecedented degree.  ZANU claimed that it was influenced by Marxism-Leninism but many observers opined that Mugabe himself was an African nationalist in the guise of a proto-Marxist and the party was his reflection.  Mugabe's beliefs were also deeply anchored in stages of historic views of the world. On completion of his degree from Fort Harare University, he went to teach in Ghana in the early 1960s where he was greatly influenced by the pan-Africanist ideas of Ghana's post-independent leader Kwame Nkrumah. Given the very complex nature of his personality, he was more likely an African nationalist with left political orientation.

Mugabe's writings, however, display fair amount of influence of Karl Marx, Mao Zedong and Frantz Fanon. His speeches in his revolutionary days were quite often laced with Marxist rhetoric. But once in power his policies could be broadly described as social-democratic. His economic policy was based on private sector working alongside public investment. He introduced a massively expanded health care and educational access for black Zimbabweans who were marginalised during the white minority rule. He also did achieve some success in building a non-racial society, but his Land Acquisition Act of 1992 allowed the confiscation of land without any judicial redress. Land ownership has been a core issue for black Zimbabweans' economic empowerment as white farmers numbering less than 5000 owned two-thirds of the country's most fertile land. The Act was designed to redistribute land to black Zimbabwean farmers. His supporters known as war veterans mostly benefitted from the land distribution and they also perpetrated violence in the process. It was alleged land was distributed to his cronies rather than to the intended rural poor.

Now in death Mugabe continues to provoke much critical commentary. In fact, the leader of Zimbabwe's liberation hero turned an authoritarian strongman, has been idolised and demonised in equal measure. His legacy will be mixed - to his supporters he was a revolutionary hero who liberated their country from colonial and white minority rule and his status as a liberation hero still resonates across Africa. But to his critics his record of government was one of   autocratic misrule, election rigging, human rights abuses, corruption and economic mismanagement bankrupting the country. To some, he is a tragic case study of a liberation hero who betrayed every one of the  values of the freedom struggle.While paying lip service to democracy, Mugabe gradually stifled political opposition. Many also allude to his ruthlessness as was seen when thousands of Ndebele people, a rival ethnic group to Shona ethnic group (Mugabe belonged to Shona ethnic group) were killed by his loyal troops in the 1980s.

 In effect Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist for 37 years until he was overthrown in a military coup in 2017. He fought and won every election during his time. But his concern for electoral validation even up to the last phase of his autocratic rule led him to resorting to open intimidatory tactics and vote rigging (even in elections he would have won anyway). Some point out that the vote rigging process was so sophisticated that no one has yet succeeded in working out all the details of how it was done. His hold on the election machinery was complete with the shadow of the armed forces lurking behind. In fact, any idea of his succession was considered as an anathema.

There has been a deep fascination with Mugabe in the West as reflected in the widespread coverage of his death in the western media. Mugabe was turned into a very convenient bogeyman of the west to the exclusion of all other aspects of his life as a freedom fighter and a national leader. He was depicted by the mainstream western media as the symbol of everything that has gone wrong with Africa. A wider perspective of history can only provide a better understanding of Mugabe at his death. Mugabe has many stories and many of them contain multiple threads of narratives. No wonder he is as divisive in death as he was in life.

The renowned Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani in a 2008 essay in the London Review of Books noted that it was hard to think of a figure more reviled in the West than Robert Mugabe. A brutal dictator who lay the economy into waste. While there was no denying of Mugabe's authoritarianism and thuggish behaviour encouraging his supporters to do the same to his opponents, and the crisis created by his land reform measures, yet he not only managed to survive but also won considerable popularity in Zimbabwe and throughout Southern Africa. "In any case, the preoccupation with his character does little to illuminate the socio-historical issues involved''. Furthermore, the British mediated 1979 Lancaster House Agreement to make transition to the Majority rule was deeply flawed as it did not address the issue of land ownership which was mostly owned by the white minority. This created a fault line of economic deprivation while achieving political rights. At the end that significantly destabilised the post-colonial state that emerged out of the Agreement.

Mugabe was a complex post-colonial leader who started with great promise but turned authoritarian and did not hesitate to use violence to stay in power and brought the country's economy to ruin. International sanctions also played their role in deepening the economic crisis causing widespread suffering for the people. Countering the hero-to-villain narrative also needs a deeper understanding of politics that played out over time.  Mugabe  seemed the antithesis of Nelson Mandela who only served one term as president of South Africa. Even many of his supporters agree that he had overstayed his welcome by hanging onto power for too long; he should have followed the example of Julius Nyerere, the founding leader of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela, the icon of South African liberation.

But Mugabe's death is unlikely to diminish the sense of enigma that surrounds him. His successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa described Mugabe as "icon of liberation, a pan Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation of his people''. Other African leaders lauded his role as a liberation fighter and a champion of anti-colonialism in Africa. Also, many others around the world remember his contribution to African history. History seems to have come full circle.

Muhammad Mahmood is an

independent economic and

political analyst.




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