Robert Mugabe: Liberation war hero with a mixed legacy

Friday September 06 2019

When Zimbabwe celebrated its independence from Britain on April 18, 1980, the newly-elected Robert Mugabe received a succinct message from a staunch supporter.

“You have inherited a jewel,” declared Julius Nyerere, then the Tanzanian president. “Keep it that way.”

The Zimbabwean leader, who has died aged 95, largely ignored the advice; and he leaves a mixed legacy.

He was a liberation war hero, a man who provided a living link with pre-independence colonial Zimbabwe – the last survivor of a small group of African politicians who endured detention without trial and went on to lead their countries to independence.

Yet throughout his 38 years in power, he rigged elections and sanctioned torture, crushed opposition, and embezzled millions of dollars, treating the state as a milk cow that served him, his family and the ruling Zanu-PF party.

The consequences were disastrous. Life expectancy fell from 60 years at independence to a low of 44 — from one of the highest in Africa to one of the lowest in the world.


At least a million Zimbabweans fled to neighbouring South Africa in search of jobs and sanctuary.


Hyperinflation wiped out savings and made pensions worthless. And a country that at independence could boast food self-sufficiency, now regularly needs foreign aid to feed its people.

The fall in production was the result of Mugabe’s often-violent seizure of most of the country’s 5,000 white-owned farms.


Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (left) shakes hands with Cuban President Fidel Castro at the State Council in Havana on September 12, 2005. PHOTO | ADALBERTO ROQUE | AFP

Ostensibly, it was done to redress a historical injustices that had left the country’s best land in the hands of whites, outnumbered 15 to one by the black majority.

The reality was that most of the seized properties were gifted to Mugabe’s cronies.

But this was no ordinary despot, no run-of-the-mill dictator. Inside the political hardliner he undoubtedly became, there was a different persona.

For all his homophobic diatribes and the rants against Britain, he was a closet Anglophile; a man who loved to watch cricket at the grounds that adjoined his official residence in the capital, Harare.


He admired the British royal family, spoke fondly of former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher and regarded Christopher Soames, the last British governor who oversaw the independence election in 1980, as a friend.

He spoke excellent English, had no fewer than seven university degrees and diplomas – most of them taken by correspondence, some during the nearly 11 years he spent in detention.

I first met Robert Mugabe in 1974, not long after he had been released from detention and shortly before he fled to neighbouring Mozambique, where Zanu’s guerrilla army was based.

A friend who lectured at the University of Rhodesia – as it was then called – had invited him to dinner. As we sat eating, there was no small talk.

Rather we heard a cool, dispassionate warning about the consequences of the failure of white Rhodesians to accept majority rule.

To meet him after he had won power was to come face to face with an icon, a man with an aura akin that of people who wield absolute power – and who are unfettered in its use.

His liberation-era credentials conferred the position of first among equals among his peers.


In this context, Mugabe’s age became an asset and not a liability, a reason for veneration rather than grounds for revolt.

His ministers were not only indebted to him, for all were beneficiaries of his patronage: they were in awe of him and afraid of him.


Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe delivers a speech during a graduation ceremony at the Zimbabwe Open University in Harare, where he presides as the Chancellor, on November 17, 2017. PHOTO | JEKESAI NJIKIZANA | AFP

Far from acting as a constraint on his power, they became complicit in his political chessboard.

Above all, he was a canny politician, skilfully manipulating the ethnic and clan rivalries that bedevil Zimbabwe’s politics, ruthless and brutal in his treatment of opponents, and shrewd in his use of patronage.

The bleak state of Zimbabwe today is in stark contrast to the cautious optimism that marked the birth of the new nation.

The guerrilla war triggered by white Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence in November 1965 was over. Economic sanctions had been lifted and hope was in the air.

“If yesterday I fought you as an enemy” - Mugabe asserted in his eve-of-independence speech, universally acclaimed for its theme of reconciliation and forgiveness - “Today you have become a friend and ally . . . If yesterday you hated me, you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me, and me to you . . . The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten.”

Robert Gabriel Mugabe had come a long way from his humble beginnings.


Born in Kutama in northwest Mashonaland in 1924 and educated at the local mission school, he was soon singled out by his Jesuit teachers as a pupil of rare talent.

But he was also a loner who made no close friends, and missed the presence of his father, who walked out on the family when Robert was a boy.

For the next 15 years, he taught at schools across the country.

It was not until 1960 that he entered politics, inspired by a visit to newly-independent Ghana, where he met and later married Sally Hayfron, a fellow teacher, who died in 1992.

Now in his 30s, he became publicity secretary for the party headed by the man he would later do his best to destroy – Joshua Nkomo, soon to be leader of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu).

He broke up with Nkomo in 1963 to co-found the rival Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu).


Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe addresses Zanu-PF party members and supporters gathered at his party headquarters on November 8, 2017 to show support for Grace Mugabe becoming the party's next Vice President after the dismissal of Emerson Mnangagwa. PHOTO | JEKESAI NJIKIZANA | AFP


Both men were detained the following year. It was while in detention that Mugabe was given the devastating news that his only son, Nhamodzenyika, had died of illness.

His request for parole in order to attend the boy’s funeral in Accra was turned down.

Mugabe was released from prison in 1974 along with other detained leaders as part of an international effort to end an intensifying guerrilla war that threatened white rule.

Early the following year, he slipped across the border into neighbouring Mozambique, the rear base for Zanu’s military wing.

Zapu’s fighters operated from Zambia. The two parties nominally united as the Patriotic Front.

Successful negotiations at London’s Lancaster House in 1979 paved the way for independence elections the next year. Mugabe triumphed.

But his victory reflected the fault line that runs through the country’s politics. Mugabe was Shona, while Nkomo was Ndebele.

Zanu won 57 of the 80 seats at stake (20 seats were reserved for whites). In the Ndebele-dominated south, Zapu secured 20 seats.


Within months of his conciliatory independence-eve address, the dream of a new era was turning into a nightmare.

Mugabe began preparing for the elimination of Zapu and the subjugation of the province of Matabeleland, the party’s stronghold.

In 1982, he sent in the North Korean trained 5 Brigade with a list of Zapu officials obtained by Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organisation.

In the hands of the brigade, it was the equivalent of a death list. Over the next two years, more than 10,000 men, women and children were slaughtered in what was called gukuruhundi — a Shona word that means “spring rains that wash away the chaff” .

Although British diplomats were well aware of what was happening, they made no public protest about this atrocity. But memories can be short.

Ten years later, Mugabe was a guest of Queen Elizabeth and was given an honorary knighthood, which was later rescinded in 2008 on the advice of the government.

His ruthless and callous side was displayed again when he launched a campaign to purge the urban areas of the increasing number of jobless people flooding the cities in search of work.


In what was called Operation Murambatsvina — "clear out rubbish" — 700,000 people were left without even rudimentary shelter as police razed shanties and bulldozed vendors' stalls.

By then it had become apparent that only force would dislodge Mugabe.

In the run-up to the 2008 election, Morgan Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist who led the opposition coalition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was publicly assaulted by police, one of whom wielded an iron bar.

Pictures of the MDC leader's bruised and battered face and head went around the world.

As the 2008 elections drew closer, the violence and intimidation got worse. A hundred MDC election agents had disappeared, and supporters were being beaten up in their thousands.

Tsvangirai felt he had no option but to withdraw from the presidential poll.

An extraordinary assertion by Mugabe confirmed that the MDC leader was right to withdraw. "The MDC will never be allowed to rule this country — never ever . . . only God will remove me."


Mugabe's lust for wealth went beyond the boundaries of Zimbabwe.

In 1998, he sent 11,000 troops from the Zimbabwe national army to fight on the side of the Kinshasa government in the Congo war. But this was no act of solidarity.

Rather, it was part of a lucrative deal in which Mugabe and his generals were rewarded for their efforts with mining and timber leases in a mineral-rich country with extensive forests.

As age took its toll, Mugabe's second wife Grace, whom he married in 1996, emerged as a contender for the presidency.

Forty years his junior, mother of his three children, unpopular but ambitious, she could have been a formidable candidate.

The intervention of the army in November 2017 may well have killed two birds with one stone.


People hold an anti-Grace Mugabe placard during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Zimbabwe's president on November 18, 2017 in Harare. PHOTO ZINYANGE AUNTONY | AFP


Meanwhile, the new president Emmerson Mnangagwa, 74, a former guerrilla and long-time Mugabe confidante, is saddled with a problem that will not go away: his role as Mugabe's “point man” in the gukurahundi massacre.

He has inherited not an African jewel but a country with a limping economy; its foreign debt unpayable and its assets squandered by the Mugabe circle.

He did not heed Nyerere’s advice and was a complicated figure. History will render a mixed verdict on Robert Mugabe’s long political life.

Michael Holman was Africa Editor of the Financial Times for more than 20 years.