Robert Mugabe died on the 6th of September 2019 at the age of 95. Many people have argued that Mugabe’s legacy is complicated and bittersweet.
On one hand, he is viewed as a liberation icon and also a Pan-Africanist with a heart for black empowerment and emancipation. On the other hand, he is also viewed as a ruthless dictator who killed and plundered just to maintain his grip on power. For me, Mugabe is not complex at all, he was a ruthless dictator. Any good he did was not out of the goodness of his heart but a calculated means to an end – an end that had to always terminate with his victory by any means necessary.
Whilst not much is documented about his shenanigans before his release from prison in 1974, the most defining moment is his ascendancy to the helm of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) was at the special congress in Chimoio in 1977
Previously, cracks had emerged after the collapse of the Zimbabwe People’s Army (ZIPA) which was a military-driven coalition of the fighting forces between the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (ZANLA). Robert Mugabe and other political leaders like Edgar Tekere were not comfortable with the rise of the younger generation of radicals and ideologically-conscious but also military-trained leadership that was now driving the war since the death of Herbert Chitepo in 1975. The group that included commanders like Dzinashe Machingura, Stephen Chocha, Parker Chipoyera known as Vashandi had already attended the Geneva Conference in 1976 as a semi-autonomous group representing the fighting wings.
In 1977 ZANU held its Special Congress whose main aim was to deal with the outstanding issues of leadership and legitimacy that had lingered since 1963 and it was then that Mugabe grabbed power through the aid of Josiah Magama Tongogara and Solomon Mujuru, known by his nom-de-guerre, Rex Nhongo. From there it became Mugabe’s mission to destroy Vashandi and he enlisted the help of Emmerson Mnangagwa, then, a fresh law graduate who prosecuted at the kangaroo military tribunal and called for a death sentence on them. They were, however, later kept in dugout dungeons until independence in 1980.
Robert Mugabe never had any intentions to share power with Joshua Nkomo the leader of Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). Initially it had been agreed that they were going to contest elections as the Patriotic Front in 1980, but Mugabe reneged at the last minute and once he took power, Mugabe made it his sole priority to make sure that ZAPU would never be a threat to him, hence, his attempt to introduce a One-Party State policy, which however faced stiff resistance. So it should be noted that Mugabe was never a democrat, he was forced to concede to some of the democratic processes by the people.
The clash of the guerrilla groups of ZIPRA and ZANLA at Entumbane in 1980 and the subsequent issue of an arms cache in 1982 justified Robert Mugabe’s long-planned destruction of ZAPU and ZIPRA. Thus, in the guise of fighting dissents, whom he claimed were sponsored by ZAPU to orchestrate acts of violence across the country, Mugabe, unleashed the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade into Matabeleland killing people wantonly. According to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe report “Breaking the Silence” approximate 20 000 people were killed, and to date none of these people ever got justice. The Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry established in 1983 to investigate the genocide that happened the Midlands and Matabeleland produced a report whose findings were never made public but is widely believed to have heavily implicated Mugabe and his people. Most senior ZAPU leaders who included Lookout Masuku and Dumiso Dabengwa were incarnated for allegedly planning a coup de tat, and eventually, ZAPU was subjugated and frog-marched into talks that culminated in the signing of the Unity Accord in 1987 in which ZAPU was completely dissolved and for Mugabe the One Party State dream was becoming a reality.
On the economic front, Zimbabwe seemed to be doing fine and with expansion in education and health for Zimbabweans previously excluded in Rhodesia, yet some structural challenges were brewing. These days are generally credited as Zimbabwe’s heydays and also Mugabe’s best. Mugabe and his government undertook to ensure that schools and rural health centres are built, and indeed the policies yielded results as the country’s development indicators positively improved. However, beyond the policy thrust of the Mugabe administration, what remains untold is that most of the funding was done through grants and loans from multilateral institutions. Local communities also played a significant role as they contributed with labour and locally sourced building materials such as bricks, sand, stones and water among many other community interventions. Access to education and healthcare improved and was good but let us not forget that it was also a responsibility of government. Mugabe was just doing the job he was engaged to do.
In 1988 Mugabe fell out with his longtime friend and then ZANU General Secretary Edgar Tekere who went on to form Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) which contested elections in 1990 and 1995. Mugabe did not take this lightly resulting in the arrest, torture and abductions of many ZUM members. In 1990 Patrick Kombayi was shot and paralysed by central intelligence agents Elias Kanengoni and Kizito Chivamba while he was campaigning against the Vice President Simon Muzenda. Despite the two having been convicted and sentenced to jail time, Mugabe pardoned them before they even served and shockingly, Elias Kanengoni was promoted to Director of the dreaded Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO).
In 1997 Mugabe facing increased pressure from liberation war veterans unilaterally and without consulting with Treasury decided at a whim to give each one of them a lump sum of ZW$50 000. This was done to appease them but without regard to the long-term effects on the economy. Typical of his lone ranger style, Mugabe unilaterally decided to enter the Congo and defend Kabila in 1998 despite the misgivings of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). While this was seen as a Pan-African thing to do he did not give due consideration to the economic impact this would have on Zimbabwe. At its height, the war was costing Zimbabwe US$2 million a day and according to former Finance Minister, Simba Makoni, at least US$200 million was poured in the operation and this was not sustainable as it was also at the time when the country was reeling from other issues like the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Due to these bad decisions and many others, the Zimbabwean economy spiralled into an endless crisis that is gripping the country up to now.
The Movement for Democratic Change was formed in 1999 following the 1998 food riots and subsequent demands for a new constitution which was expected to curtail some of Mugabe’s powers. The economy was also putting pressure on Mugabe and his people were growing impatient over the issue of land.
War veterans marched on him demanding land, at the same time MDC was gaining ground. To survive Mugabe threw white farmers under the bus and launched the chaotic and ruthless exercise to grab land from minority white people and distribute it to black people. While land reform was a necessity Mugabe only did it to save himself.
His biggest undoing was allowing corruption to go unchecked as long as it aided his stay in power. There were many scandals which involved his cronies but no one was ever held accountable. Some of them include Willowgate and Ziscogate, just to mention a few.
MDC provided Mugabe with his biggest challenge to power since 1980. He nearly lost a majority in parliament in 2000 and from then everyone who supported MDC, from students, trade unions and white farmers were viewed as enemies. Some of them were condemned to death.
In 2008 elections, Mugabe lost to Morgan Tsvangirai and what followed was a wave of killings in a state-sponsored operation code-named Operation Mavhotera Papi (Operation whom did you vote for). Hundreds of people were killed in cold blood including MDC’s youth leader Tonderai Ndira while others like Jestina Mukoko and Gandi Mudzingwa were abducted and kept incommunicado. This he did to force a Government of National Unity with him remaining at the helm.
When things became tougher Mugabe again to appease his people enacted the Indigenization Law which required foreigners to not own more than 49% of stake in any company in Zimbabwe. Just like during the land reform, his cronies grabbed companies without compensation and as a result, many of the companies collapsed.
Diamonds were discovered in Marange. Mugabe and his cronies especially those in the military mined the diamonds and sold them illicitly. Billions of dollars were siphoned out and very little ended up in Treasury. Today, military commanders and Mugabe own some of the biggest houses in Zimbabwe.
What I have written above is Mugabe’s legacy. Everything good was done with the clandestine intention to maintain power. Mugabe also used the state apparatus to kill civilians. His worst misdeed was forgiving himself for his sins on behalf of his victims. Every wave of violence terminated with a pardon of the perpetrators with no justice to the victims.
Today he is dead, the victims are littered across the world. I would advocate that every piece of his estate be liquidated and the proceeds are used to assist the families of his numerous victims. Unfortunately, this is just a pipe dream because the current junta in Zimbabwe is made up of the same people who were Mugabe’s henchmen!
Freeman Chari is a Human rights and social change activist