The President of Zimbabwe, Africa’s oldest dictator celebrated his 90th birthday this past Friday, the 21st of February, 2014, amid speculation that his health might be failing him.Advanced age and health issues have brought the topic of succession onto the table as it looks like the old despot is reaching the end of his reign, leaving the world with one less tyrant. But he was not always an oppressor, a dictator. There was a time where he was a liberator and a democrat that was worshipped as a hero.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born in what was then Rhodesia, one of the British Empire’s colonies. At age 10 his father abandoned him and he was raised by catholic missionaries. From catholic school, he went on to study at Fort Hare University, in South Africa, where roughly a decade later, a young Mandela would enrol. Much like Madiba, Mugabe came in contact with the African National Congress (ANC) while at Fort Hare and it was during that time that he became politically aware.
He undertook several of his seven degrees at Fort Hare before becoming a teacher in Ghana. Mugabe kept studying but longed for his home country, where a war for independence was brewing. He returned to Rhodesia as a political activist, fighting for civil rights and independence, a trade which earned him 10 years in prison for “subversive speech”.
Mugabe served his time and then left for Mozambique where he joined and then lead a guerilla against British backed Rhodesian prime-minister, Ian Smith. His men were called the ‘thinking man’s guerilla’, in a reference to his intellect. Truce finally came in 1979 and in 1980, through the Lancaster House agreement, Rhodesia became the Republic of Zimbabwe.
Mugabe rose to power to lead a Zimbabwean nation devastated by 15 years of civil war. He did so in coalition with Joshua Nkomo, leader of another guerilla that fought against Ian Smith. While in power he adopted a conciliatory stance on the white man: “If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend”. He forgave and forgot, in the name of Zimbabwe, and invited blacks and whites to work together in the reconstruction of the country.
The principle was one of national reconciliation, as he called it, one that would then characterize Mandela ‘s policies in South Africa. For that he was nominated for the Nobel peace prize, along with Lord Carrington, the British Foreign Secretary with whom he worked. Unlike Madiba, roughly a decade later, he did not win.
This is where the similarity between Mugabe and Mandela ends, on their first term. Madiba served for just five years and then relinquished power, whereas Mugabe clang to it. Soon after his rise to power, Zimbabwe’s hero fell from grace as he and Nkomo started to drift apart. Eventually a rebellion began and Mugabe used his Fifth Brigade – trained in North Korea – to crush Nkomo’s guerrilla in an ethnic cleanse that left nearly 20,000 dead. He did so while expanding healthcare and education to the four corners of Zimbabwe, a feat that, combined with the country’s booming economy, was enough for the West to ignore the violence. In fact, despite the numerous accusations made against his regime, in 1994 he was knighted by the Queen of England. Yes, for a time he was Sir Robert Mugabe.
The West ignored the repression until it could ignore no more. Nearly two decades after Zimbabwe’s independence, unrest took to the streets, fuelled by a young generation that did not live through Mugabe’s fight against Britain. They did not acknowledge his heroic status and wanted a say in the country’s future. Protests were met with repression until Mugabe decided to appease the mob with patronage. He threw the “national reconciliation” principle that made him a success, through the window and went in a different direction. Mugabe confiscated acres and acres of land from white proprietaries and distributed them to landless blacks, disrupting a functioning and growing system. The results were devastating. In a few years, Zimbabwe’s economy shrank to half, its currency became a joke and life expectancy fell from 61 to 45.
The West, especially Britain, noticed when white citizens were being confiscated of their wealth and Mugabe was no longer a hero. In history’s narrative, he became a villain. His repressive nature became was now widely known throughout the world and there were repercussions. In 2008 he was stripped of the title he was given by the Queen, and his country has been sanctioned by the UN.
Mugabe has spent 34 of his 90 years in power and, at his age, he is serving a 7th term and considering an 8th. His health is not what it once was as he spent his 90th anniversary in Singapore, where he had surgery to remove cataracts from one of his eyes. That is the official version. The unofficial, supported by a leaked US cable, suggests he might have prostate cancer. Even so, when asked by a journalist about handing the country over, to the next generation, he replied with another question: “at this age I can still go one more, can’t I?”.
When the curtain finally closes on Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s life, we’ll have two sides of him. Mugabe the democrat, liberator and hero. Mugabe the despot, the killer and the tyrant. Despite the cruelty of his regime there still seem to be a few, mainly in his home country, who are willing to forget his latter years and remember him as a hero. I have my doubts. How should a man who elevated his country, only to put on its knees, be remembered?