via Mugabe’s legacy | National Post by Bradley Crawford
After winning another disputed Zimbabwean election last July, 89-year-old Robert Mugabe was sworn in this month to serve his seventh consecutive term as president. Though many had hoped the tyrant’s 33-year reign would end, others still see promise in the man.
In August, Britain’s The Guardian ran an article titled “Why a Robert Mugabe victory would be good for Zimbabwe” by British filmmaker Roy Agyemang. Agyemang, who spent three years in the country filming his documentary Mugabe: Villain or Hero? can barely contain his admiration for Mugabe, whom he refers to as a “dying breed” of African politician, “the surviving face of African nationalism”.
Mugabe is definitely a member of a dying breed: President-for-Life African tyrants. Over his decades-long rule, Mugabe has never pretended to represent all of his citizens. To Mugabe, “Zimbabwean” refers to the majority Shona people. Minority Ndebele are lesser Zimbabweans, and the few native whites are foreigners. He is, and always has been, in it for his own interests, or at best, the interests of his own ethnic group.
Mugabe came to power after the small white minority, which ruled the country at the time, declared independence from Britain in 1965. Zimbabwae’s majority black population rose up under two rival rebel political parties and their respective militias. After 15 years of fighting, a peace agreement was reached that included elections. Mugabe and his Zimbabwean African National Union party won power at the ballot box, taking office in 1980.
At the time, Mugabe could indeed claim to be a freedom fighter and African nationalist hero like Nelson Mandela. He had spent close to a decade incarcerated between 1965 and 1974, using the time to gain higher education. But the comparisons to Mandela end there. Mugabe’s legacy is more in tune with that of Idi Amin, the illiterate and malicious buffoon that terrorized Uganda from 1971-1979. Like Amin, Mugabe’s style of governance is one that is fixated on violence towards all political opposition.
Not long after taking office in 1980, Mugabe ruthlessly cracked down on his political rivals. He banned their rallies, intimidated and murdered their supporters, and closed their offices. Mugabe then signed a deal with North Korea’s Kim Il Sung to have North Korean officers train an elite unit of soldiers, drawn mostly from Shona recruits loyal to Mugabe. In 1981, an all-out campaign to suppress all opposition to Mugabe began, and these troops were at the vanguard.
Known as the 5th Brigade, the unit’s first directive was to occupy Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland, the homeland of the Ndebele people and centre of support for ZAPU, the main political rival to Mugabe’s party. After occupying and segregating Matabeleland from 1982-1986, the brigade proceeded to carry out beatings, torture, and executions. The unit left 20,000 Ndebele dead in its wake in an attempt to neutralize all ZAPU support and opposition. It was not until 1987 that international pressure produced a unity agreement between Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, the ZAPU leader. ZAPU was integrated into Mugabe’s party, and Mugabe himself retained all his power. The violence in Matabeleland remains a dark stain on Mugabe’s record.
As does his treatment of white Zimbabweans as foreigners responsible for the nation’s suffering. Throughout his entire presidency, Mugabe has employed contentious land reform policies whereby private white-owned farms have been nationalized and redistributed to the black majority as small commercial properties. These are often converted to subsistence farms. Land reform was integral to the pursuit of racial equality and development in Zimbabwe — Mugabe and his supporters were not wrong to note that only a tiny percentage of (white) Zimbabweans owned almost all the productive land. The manner in which land reform was undertaken, however, was typical Mugabe, steeped in violence and corruption.
Many of the farms seized from white owners have been given directly to individuals in Mugabe’s inner circle. The tradition of a privileged land owning minority continues unabated — the owners have changed, but the reality for most landless Zimbabweans has not. Most of those who have land bestowed on them know nothing about agriculture, which remains at the centre of Zimbabwe’s economy. Many of the farms seized have been taken violently. Thousands of Zimbabweans, who were employed on the farms, have been subjected to this violence and deliberate terror campaigns, for the crime of simply working there. The white owners have largely fled, but the black workers remain at the mercy of Mugabe’s thugs. Thousands have perished.
The result of this has been the ruination of what was once called the “Breadbasket of Africa”. “[Mugabe] and his cronies have managed single-handedly to destroy one of the most promising countries in Africa,” wrote Dr. John Laband, a professor of African history. The collapse of the country’s agricultural sector lies at the heart of this undoing.
Mugabe epitomizes colonialism’s violence, subjugation and indignity
After 33 years, Mugabe’s legacy is this: rampant abuses of human rights, the elimination of all political opposition, the organized slaughter in Matabeleland, the exile of the white minority, the persecution, murder and dispossession of an estimated 400,000 black Zimbabwean farm workers, a massive and continuing exodus of refugees, and the destruction of Zimbabwe’s economy, which has left countless Zimbabweans starving, unemployed, impoverished or buried.
Indeed, Mugabe has become exactly what he hates so fervently and claims to have spent his life fighting against. He is not a symbol of African nationalism and unity who has returned the dignity that colonialism stole. Rather, he epitomizes colonialism’s violence, subjugation and indignity.
If Zimbabwe should miraculously become a peaceful nation with rapid economic growth during Mugabe’s final years it would never forgive his 33 years of violence, sectarianism and economic mismanagement. That anyone would consider his re-election a good thing for Zimbabwe shows only how little they understand its recent, bloody history and the man responsible for it.
Bradley Crawford is a freelance writer who holds a Master’s degree in Global History with a specialization in African conflict and development from the University of Guelph. He blogs about current affairs athttp://thotkrime.wordpress.com/