Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the old fox of African politics, turned 93 on Tuesday. As expected, many news outlets focused more on the damage that Mugabe’s misrule has visited on Zimbabwe, once a rich and proud country in the generally well-endowed southern part of Africa, but now subsisting on nothing much more than the Grace of God.
As the longest-serving Head of State, Mugabe has been at the centre of so much and has said and done so much that it is difficult to establish for sure what he has actually done or not done, said or not said.
In the past few years, Mugabe’s face has also been common in social media spaces, purportedly commenting on all subjects from the economy to international politics to matters of romance. Peddlers of such quotes in WhatsApp groups have used them to create and share humour.
If you google “Mugabe quotes”, you will read things such as, “Sometimes you look back at the girls you spent money on rather than send it to your mum and you realise witchcraft is real”, or “If you play your man like a football, another woman will catch him like a goalkeeper.”
Such quotes, supposedly by Mugabe, point to important facts about the man that his critics and enemies would rather admit. Mugabe is easily the most educated president in the world – he earned eight university degrees in english, history, administration, economics, science, and law from universities in South Africa and England – and he often uses that expansive education to subdue fellow presidents and nosy newsmen who pose hard questions.
If you ever watched Mugabe giving interviews to journalists on television before he was ostracised from the Commonwealth, he often made light work of the lesser educated news people. He had admirable rhetorical skills with which to push his facts, quite often deeply embarrassing his interviewers.
Such was the plight of one female journalist from CNN, I believe, who had landed in Harare with all her traditions and misconceptions. Watching the subsequent interview, I saw the poor lady exhibit all visible signs of trauma caused by Mugabe’s unapologetic claim that the journalist’s ancestors were accomplices in and beneficiaries of slavery and slave trade in Africa, and that she was a protégé of Tony Blair and George Bush, who were bent on bringing back the bad times.
Basking in the glory of both his education and rhetorical skills, he boasted soon after the interview about how he intellectually pulverised the hapless journalist. “I am an educationist. I am an economist. I am a politician. I am also now a good storyteller, you know?”
He also used these skills and knowledge to rebuke European and American leaders, most of who don’t think much of African leaders. During his controversial land expropriation programme, Mugabe gave fiery speeches to provoke Black Zimbabwean nationalism, staking the entire national economy to his rhetoric of national pride, while chiding those who held divergent views as Europe’s and America’s lackeys.
“The land is ours. It’s not European and we have taken it, we have given it to the rightful people” Mugabe is reported to have declared, adding that “Those of white extraction who happen to be in the country and are farming are welcome to do so, but they must do so on the basis of equality.”
Mugabe chastised South Africa’s then President Thabo Mbeki, told off British premier Tony Blair, and outrightly insulted his political opponent Morgan Tsvangirai when they separately warned him against the land expropriation programme.
“We have fought for our land, we have fought for our sovereignty, small as we are we have won our independence and we are prepared to shed our blood” he roared, before unleashing the clincher “so, Blair keep your England, and let me keep my Zimbabwe.”
Mugabe had donned this cloak of nationalistic patriotism to stem an election tide that was sweeping him and ZANU-PF away, and land provided a readily available but costly escape route.
Bob, as Mugabe was fondly known to his admirers, enlisted the support of the military and vowed never to hand over power to any one with the support of foreign masters.
He brought out the army just before elections and on the polling day ostensibly to ensure voters queued properly, much to the chagrin of MDC leadership and to deafening global condemnation.
Mugabe would hear none of it, declaring that “our votes must go together with our guns. After all, any votes we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun.
The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer – its guarantor. The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.”
Not the one to fear anyone, Mugabe’s manners got the better of him when, much later, some African leaders met Barack Obama in South Africa. The then American president began, in usual patronage of African leadership, to tell them about respecting free speech and so on.
Mugabe, who had been dozing all through, asked Obama: “What about [Edward] Snowden?” – the American whistle blower who fled the country for fear of American retribution – deeply embarrassing their host Jacob Zuma.
Godwin Siundu teaches at the University of Nairobi.