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Mugabe and the dying art of African Big Chiefs’ demise

Wednesday September 18 2019

Robert Mugabe body leaves Singapore

A police outrider leads a hearse transporting the body of former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe from the Singapore Casket funeral parlour in Singapore on September 11, 2019. Mugabe died on Friday, aged 95. PHOTO | ROSLAN RAHMAN | AFP 

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As the folks in my village would say, Robert Gabriel Mugabe went and left us just like that!

Mugabe, in 1980, came to power after leading Zimbabwe’s heroic liberation struggle; raised it to the pedestal; then became the proverbial bitch that ate its puppies, leaving the country a sorry shell.

In November 2017, his fellow Zanu-PF liberators forced him to resign with a gun to his head.


Like many other African leaders, Mugabe ruined his country’s health system; so he took to seeking treatment abroad. He died in a Singaporean hospital on September 6.

We will not go into Mugabe’s political and economic record. His passing in a foreign land, at the ripe old age of 95 and with nearly 40 years as president of Zimbabwe in his back pocket, spoke to a big crisis — the death of the art of the African Big Man’s demise.


African leaders have forgotten the great art of dying in the style and dignity befitting Big Chiefs. They should leave that business of dying in foreign hospitals to us lesser mortals.

So, what is this the Art of the African Big Man’s Death?

A Big Chief’s body should never be met at the airport tarmac — landing from a foreign country where he died. A chief must die on his land. It’s important for how history is written, and traditional songs composed.

Great African rulers of times gone by toughed it out: Shaking violently from bouts of malaria, sweaty, gnashing their teeth and probably tied down on their deathbeds with ropes.


Chroniclers would later write or sing of how “they stared death in the face, battling it out bravely, unbowed, breathing their last in a blaze glory”. The story might say, “on the day of the King’s death, the cockerels crowed unusually loudly in the morning, and the cows shifted uneasily in the kraal”.

If a man who saw himself as a great anti-imperialist — like Mugabe — dies in Singapore, surrounded by strange nurses, and the muffled sound of the air conditioner, without the agitated crowing of cockerels on his last day, what’s that?

Secondly, a Big Chief must die to some ceremony.

Had Mugabe died in Harare, the media would have camped outside his home for weeks since April when he was taken ill (as they did for Nelson Mandela).

Ministers would go in to see him, and come out and claim he “slept a little better. The signs are hopeful”.

The chairlady of the Zanu-PF Women’s League, emerging with a sullen face, would give rise to speculation in the media about how his health might have taken a turn for the worst.


Delegations would arrive every day from all over the country. Traditional dancers would arrive. The women’s choir of his — or First Lady’s — church would sing daily in the corridors of the hospital.

Dear relatives would have flocked to his sick bed, fanning him, and swatting away the occasional stubborn insect buzzing around the immobile Big Chief’s head.

A Big Chief must check out surrounded by his people, and cultural pomp. This thing Mugabe did is not for serious Big Men.

And, of course, Mugabe missed out on his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, pulling up at his hospital in a long motorcade to visit. The masses would have marvelled at the majesty of the patient.

And, of course, if he had struggled bravely in a Harare hospital in his last days, other rulers from Africa would have flown in — Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa and Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso in his $100,000 crocodile skin shoes, to name a few, all would have rocked up.

The red carpet outside Mugabe’s Harare hospital could have been a permanent feature.


There would have been endless prayer vigils for his recovery. And, it goes without saying, along the way to the hospital, hustlers would have set up stalls selling Mugabe stuff — T-shirts, scarves, caps, paintings, books, postcards with his famous sayings and selected wisdom.

By choosing to die in Singapore, Mugabe missed an opportunity to cement his place in the hearts of all these people who would have made a living from his last days on this earth.

Finally, our doctors and nurses work so hard; they deserve their day in the sun when a president chooses to fight it out in a local hospital. The daily briefings by the president’s doctor, and the head of the hospital — starched white coat, marvellously bespectacled — would have been priceless.

Mugabe went without any of that. There were no weekly scenes on TV of schoolchildren singing for “Tata” and “Baba” and “Father of the Nation” to get well. That is not the way a Big Chief dies.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of explainer site @cobbo3