Category Archives: Vasco Sousa Cotovio

From now on, we will have the pleasure to read Vasco Sousa Cotovio every Sunday. He is passionate about international affairs and politics and that will be his main area of focus when writing for the JR Chronicle, since it allows him to touch on, pretty much, every subject. From economics to sport, from famine to fashion, from health to war, everything falls into this domain.. We are very glad that he is joining us, and thank him very much for believing in our project.

Abu Sayyaf

Introductory note: This post, on a terrorist group, follows my last one on the Tamil Tigers. I had several friends that visited Sri Lanka in the past few weeks, which made me curious about the country and the Tigers. While investigating them, I came across several other terrorist groups in the region, with similar claims and tactics which I found it interesting to share.

Like most Arab names, Abu Sayyaf carries a powerful meaning. It means “bearer of the sword”. The name symbolizes de group’s violent ways, inscribed into its name and its purpose and, as always, designed to instil fear.  Abu Sayyaf was borne   in 1991, of a split from the Moro National Liberation Front.

After decades of insurgency and unrest, as several separatist Muslim groups tried to create an independent Islamic State in the southernmost islands of the archipelago, with no results, Abu Sayyaf was the answer for many who thought Manila was not listening. The group brought more radical and violent means to the negotiating table and started its own campaign against the Philippine government and, if necessary, the world.

Abu Sayyaf’s first publicly known attack happened in 1991, when the group killed two American evangelists with a grenade, and by 1995 the organization was operating full scale all over the Philippines. The group kept its focus on the southern islands of Mindanao and Sulu. There are also a few cases of attacks outside this area and even abroad.  All in all they are a very prolific terrorist group and some areas in the Philippines where their presence is felt, are still not recommended for national and foreign tourists.

In their fight for an Iranian-style Islamic State, the group has been involved in bombings, assassinations, extortion and kidnappings for ransom. The last two serve the purpose of financing the groups war effort and they account for a great percentage of the money Abu Sayyaf raises every year. Unlike other more organized terrorists groups, the organization’s logistics platform is quite limited. They have kidnapped hundreds, including several foreign citizens, the latter guaranteeing their much wanted TV coverage (as seen below).

One of the more high profile cases was that of the kidnapping of 20 tourists from the Dos Palmas resort, on May 2001. Among the hostages were two American citizens, which drew international attention to the situation, the group and its objectives. In the following 12 months, 5 of the hostages died, two were killed – one of them, the American Guillermo Sobero, was beheaded by the group. Fighting between Abu Sayyaf and Philippine military was bloody and ended with the death of 22 Philippine soldiers and an unknown number of casualties on the terrorist side.

As for arms, Abu Sayyaf relies on home made bombs, mortars and automatic weapons, while at the same time using the Philippine jungles as cover. Their elusiveness has been one of the key difficulties by each of the governments that sat in Manila, for the past 23 years.

In the past few years, the group has been pushed back by the Philippine Marines (known for training with US military stationed in the region) and its numbers have shrunk. In 2002, at the height of its power, Abu Sayyaf had more than a 1,000 combatants, a number that has been reduced to something between 200 and 400  militants. The group has struggled to fight back and its military arm has lost some of its power. Abu Sayyaf now resorts mostly to kidnappings for ransom as it tries to survive. It currently holds 4 people, including two European birdwatchers hostage.

The Philippine government has been successful in targeting the organization’s leadership, by jailing or killing its most charismatic leaders and thus, splitting Abu Sayyaf into several factions. Despite its decline the group remains active and continues to fight for its goal, even if today the question is more about their survival than about their success.

Advertisements

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

They are, or were, one of the world’s most organized terrorist groups and you probably know Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam by their shorter name, the Tamil Tigers.  The separatist organisation, born in 1975 and composed of Sri Lankans of Tamil ethnicity, has been fighting for an independent state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, called Tamil Eelam, since then.

Tamils represent over 10% of the country’s population and they feel persecuted by Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority, the Sinhalese. Differences between the two range from language to religion (the Sinhalese are mainly Buddhists whereas the Tamils are mostly Hindu) and their grudge has its roots in British colonialism. When the Island was called Ceylon, the Tamils were favoured by the colonial overlords and as soon as independence was achieved, the Sinhalese majority decided that the country’s official language and religion were to be its own, excluding the Tamils from any discussion.

The fight between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government started soon after (circa 1980) and has been one of the longest and deadliest in Asia and the World. Acknowledging its inferior numbers, the group pioneered a number of techniques that have become common practice among  terrorist groups. They perfected suicide bombings by introducing the suicide belt and pioneering the use of women.

The means produced the intended ends and, since 1980, an estimated 80,000 civilians have lost their lives in the confrontation between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. The separatist group has been responsible for 200 suicide attacks, a dozen of high level assassinations, including two world leaders (1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and 1993 assassination of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa)- they are the only terrorist group to have done so.

They are known to have contacts with several criminal groups in Asia, and, reportedly, received military training from the Palestine Liberation Organization. They have also been said to have an operational alliance with Al-Qaeda, a tie that experts believe to be false.

Behind the fierceness of the Tamil Tigers is a complex organisation that manages and finances the guerilla effort. The group has separate departments responsible for procuring arms and explosives for the military branch (which has between 8,000 and 15,000 troops) but the economic side has not been forgotten. The group relies of donations from Tamils living in Western Europe and Canada, as well as on criminal activities (such as drug, arms and human trafficking to the UK and parts of Europe). It also owns a series of stocks and real estate investments in various parts of the world, and a large number of Asian grocery stores throughout the planet.

In 2009, the group was disbanded after a government offensive killed the Tigers’ founder and leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, but many believe that the group will respond and return in the near future. Among those that feel that way is the Sri Lankan government. Commemoration of Prabhakaran’s death and displaying the Tamil Tigers’ flag have been prohibited throughout the country, a clear sign that the government still fears the apparently extinct separatist movement.

Vellupillai Prabhakaran

Game of Thrones and International Politics

I trust most of you have already heard about Game of Thrones, HBO’s hit TV show based on a series of epic fantasy novels, written by George R. R. Martin. The show is well established within popular culture, as are the books, and now everyone knows the author and his work, nearly 20 years after the release of the first book.

Among the several differentiating aspects of the show and the books, are the violence, nudity, and intricate social and political connections. It is the political side of a fictional story that has specialized publications such as Foreign Policy or Foreign Affairs (the links will lead you to several articles on the subject), trying to explain what kind of world is the one portrayed in Game of Thrones, after having already tried to explain the world we live in. It also has veteran political journalists interviewing some of the actors.

Even if we don’t dwell into political theory, it is hard not to make parallels between our world and our history and Game of Thrones’ middle age based fantasy world, which happens to contain dragons, demons, dire wolfs, sorcery and ice zombies (they look as scary as they sound).

(SPOILER ALERT)

In this story, the civilized world is composed of a giant country that comprises seven kingdoms, most of which, at one point fight for the right to sit on the Iron Throne, which is the seat of the King. The King rules over all of the seven, which do have some autonomy, similar to the way Washington rules over all the states in the USA, even though each state has its own constitution and government. The scramble for power can be compared to what happened in Europe from middle age until World War II, when several countries / nations fought to expand their domains in Europe and the newly discovered continents (mostly Africa and America).

Besides power politics, there is also the other side of international relations in Game of Thrones. The alliances, the sanctions, the backstabbing and deceit. It is politics on a big level and on a small one, and it is fascinating to compare our world to the one we get to see on TV. Once we set aside the obvious fantasy aspects of that world, and the natural technological differences, it is interesting to understand that not much differentiates us from that ruthless planet. Class struggles, corruption, bribes, poverty, war and famine are all present and that should stifle some reflection on our own path, and on the evolution we ought to have achieved by now.

It is hard for me to dwell more into the subject more without revealing too much about the show. So, for those that have not seen it yet, I encourage you to watch it and read the above mentioned articles. For those that already do watch Game of Thrones, try to look at its political intricacies because you will probably find it interesting. The main reason being that it is rare to see such a complex and accurate portrait of how ruthless the world of politics really is.

Al midan – The Square

The people demand the downfall of the regime” – is the motto of this documentary set deep inside the Egyptian Revolution. The uprising in Egypt was one of the ground-breaking movements of the so called “Arab Spring” (wrongly, I believe). It was a landmark, on so many levels, as people stood up to demand the resignation of a dictator who had spent the last 40 years in power – Hosni Mubarak.

We all know the story – from the occupation of Tahrir square, to the repressive measures taken by the President and, finally, his actual resignation. We have also become too familiar with the roller-coaster it has been since Mubarak was toppled: the Islamic brotherhood, shunned for so many years, saw the opportunity and got one of its own elected President – Mohamed Morsi.

The Brotherhood turned out not to be what it had promised and the shortcomings of the Islamic state model – that we have analysed here, at the J.R. Chronicle – became apparent and the rebellions re-started.

Morsi was toppled by the military and a new government and constitution are on its way, with rising protests on the streets, especially in universities.  But we all know this, it’s in the news. What we do not know are the stories behind the news. That is what Al midan aims to show.

Starting in the roots of the revolution – at Tahrir square – this 2013 Oscar nominated documentary portrays the personal lives of several people and how they intervened, fought, adapted and lived in and through the uprisings. As it is so eloquently mentioned on the film’s own website, “The Square is an immersive experience, transporting the viewer deeply into the intense emotional drama and personal stories behind the news. It is the inspirational story of young people claiming their rights, struggling through multiple forces, in the fight to create a society of conscience”. For that, it won the Audience Award for World Cinema in the documentary category at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and the People’s Choice Award in the documentary category at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival.

el-meydan
Ahmed Hassan, one of the activists featured in the film. On The Square’s website he is described as “a born storyteller and street revolutionary. He is a key part of the defense of Tahrir in the 18 days leading up to Mubarak’s resignation, and all of the occupations of the square since. His hope is to create a new society of conscience in Egypt”.

It is a story only made possible using the technologies of the XXI century and that can only be told because that technological evolution has occurred. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, combined with smartphones, DSLR and action cameras have speaking up and sharing your thoughts a lot easier. That is what made the revolution in Egypt and that is what made this documentary possible.

From a personal point of view, these are the kind of stories that one can connect to, that are the most telling and, last but not least, the ones that are definitely worth reporting.

image

 

Nigeria: Africa’s top economy and its future

As of last Sunday, Nigeria is Africa’s top economy and the 26th largest in the world. The country underwent a process of recalculation, bringing the base year of calculus from 1990 to 2010 and its GDP jumped 89%. New data provides a more adequate assessment of the country’s economic structure and includes several important sectors that were previously excluded from the statistics. The film industry (the second biggest employer after the oil industry) telecoms, music, online sales, airlines and information technology are among them.

This new data, revised and approved by the IMF and World Bank paints a prettier picture of Nigeria’s economy, not just because it is 89% larger but also because it is more diversified (full data available here). As Africa’s biggest oil producer and exporter, Nigeria could have allowed its economy to be over dependent on the oil industry, as most producing countries are. Instead, the sector accounts for only 14.4% of National GDP (even if it is the source of 70% of the state’s revenues).

Nigeria
Source: Nigeria Bureau of Statistics

Agriculture and industry have 21,6% and 25,6% of the share, respectively, and  telecoms are now a huge part of the economy as well (see chart above). The sector accounts for 8,6% of GDP and has seen a rapid growth in the last few years, as mobile phones become more and more accessible to Nigeria’s 169 million citizens. Nollywood, the country’s film industry and second biggest employer, accounts for 1,4% of GDP. Services, as expected, dominate and are responsible for 51,9% of GDP.

All these indicators paint the picture of a healthy economy that is worth a second look by investors and could be the start of a new age of investment in Nigeria, and possibly in Africa. Often referred to as the “world’s richest continent”, Africa is poised for an economical boom and it is only a question of “when”. Adding to the already attractive indicators, is the fact that Nigeria’s economy is under performing. South Africa’s population of only 51 million managed to achieve a GDP of $372bn last year. With 169 million people living within its borders, Nigeria’s GDP stood at $509bn. Numbers that mean the country can dream of even more if it can improve its productivity. Investment should not be hard to find and, with public debt dropping to 11% of GDP, some of it can even come from the state.

However, there are some problems that the government must try to solve. Terrorism and violence are still a problem in the North, due mostly to the Islamic extremists of Boka Haram. Attacks continue to make headlines when it comes to African news and can be a major disincentive for possible investors. Another issue in Nigeria is inequality. While the economy has been growing steadfast, 60% of the county’s population live in extreme poverty, while at the top end, new multimillionaires emerge, each year. Such inequality can stifle violence, crime and instability, another investor deterrent, and can partly explain the prevalence of Boka Haram.

#FreeAJStaff

It is a social media campaign that has exploded on the internet and it is making headlines in the world’s most renowned media.

It is a plea for the freedom of press and it  all started on December 29 last year, when three al-Jazeera journalists were detained in Cairo, following their coverage of the toppling of President Mohamed Morsi and the violence that followed.

Egyptian authorities have deemed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, pursuing its members and all those who give it a voice, including international journalists. That is why Australian ex-BBC reporter Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian ex-CNN journalist Mohamed Fahmy and local producer Baher Mohamed were arrested. They are accused of conspiring with the Brotherhood to tarnish Egypt’s international reputation.

Al-Jazeera has since demanded the release of its staff, arguing that the charges are absurd, an idea shared by other journalists and politicians around the world. Many have condemned this action as an attempt to end the freedom of expression in Egypt.

To make its case, the Qatari network has launched a huge social media campaign, asking people, around the world, to show their support through the hashtag “#FreeAJStaff”. People showed support by taking a photograph of themselves (selfie) while holding a “#FreeAJStaff” sign. The hashtag has, since then, been reproduced more than 250 million times, just on Twitter.

The campaign has been supported by millions, including top organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union and the White House. On February 27, al-Jazeera also held a global day of protest, to press for the release of its journalists detained in Cairo. The move gave the campaign extra strength as media organisations from all over the world took part in the initiative. Well known journalists, such as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour have also joined the fight.

Although focusing on the imprisoned al-Jazeera journalists, the campaign now has the broader objective of protecting freedom of press, not only in Egypt, but also in Crimea or Syria. Journalism and journalists have become the targets of those who do not want the attention of the international community and wish to keep their agendas hidden.

A worthy campaign, with a worthy objective, that was highlighted in this year’s Polis Journalism Conference, an event organized by the London School of Economics. Participants showed their support for the journalists and the campaign itself by holding a sign with the hashtag “#FreeAJStaff”. I was proud to have been among them.

If you with with to learn more about the campaign and those  involved, check out al-Jazeera’s “Journalism Under Fire” page for the latest updates on the campaign, or their Tumblr, always updated with the latest selfies of their supporters.

Capitalism and Socialism: a reflection

I can see the warning signs as I prepare myself to write about this. It is, in every way, a complicated topic. However, I would like for you to indulge me, it is nothing more but a short reflection. I will start by saying I have no political ambitions, I am a journalist and my purpose is to be a watchdog for those that do. I would also add that I tend to vote more on the right than on the left but I would say I am right there in the middle. Allow me to explain. I believe in market solutions, in private initiative and in a small State apparatus. However, by small I don’t mean non-existent. I believe the State must protect the weakest and most vulnerable and provide for good education, health and social security. All in all, I believe in balance. Having said that, I believe no such system exists.

We all know about the dangers of socialism and its extremes as we have seen with some communist countries, mainly USSR. It seems obvious that it is impossible for everyone to aspire to the same thing, to be awarded the same wage, regardless of merit. Competition is in itself an incentive for excellence and if there is no visible difference in rewards between a dedicated worker and a lazy one, competition is impossible. Also, in a non competitive environment even the most brilliant minds tend to wane. Successful people would feel the disincentive and the results would be ever decreasing productivity. Adding to that, you can be sure to have some environments that are more equal than the others. Despite its negative side, Socialism did have a social consideration embedded in it, an ideal worth preserving.

Capitalism sits on the other side of the fence. It allows one to take the initiative, a fight for new ideas that can have a real impact in our world. It inspires competitiveness, creativity and, hence, excellence. Economic relations are formed and expanded and a stability is welcomed by the system. It is however an unbalanced system and the disparities are huge. As the international organization Oxfam mentions in a new report, the 85 richest people in the world have the same amount of wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest. I cannot begin to comprehend how this is possible, let alone just, or right. As I mentioned above, I believe in a system that rewards merit, where I would include hard work, inventiveness and entrepreneurship. However, it is impossible to believe that 85 people work harder, are more creative, inventive or entrepreneurial than 3.5 billion people. Even if we exclude the 200 million unemployed worldwide, it still seems ridiculously unfair. This level of inequality is visible at a smaller scale as well, when you witness a growth in the wealthiest fortunes, even if their countries are struggling, a practice that has become common not only in developing countries but in western society as well.

Oxfam’s report states that the wealthiest bend the laws in their favor, guaranteeing that wealth continues to be funnelled to the upper echelons of society. We see them investing in political campaigns, huge lobbying firms, lawyers that help them find loopholes in the law and there is always the good old bribe. There are many examples on Forbes top 10, let alone in the top 85, of billionaires with strong political connections that help them maintain their wealth. They use money to buy support, to make sure their interests are in good hands, to make sure they make more money. It is an endless circle, almost of a feudal nature, with and increasing disparity between the richest and the poorest.

Thus, the current system perverts the very essence of democracy, and the consequences are more than just the concentration of wealth on the upper 1%, as the Occupy movement labelled them. As we’ve been witnessing in the last few decades, the oil lobby has managed to keep alternative power sources that can be as or more efficient from being fully adopted (hydrogen, for example), even if some countries seem to be making real progress. Oil companies and their shareholders need to keep their incomes so they prefer if life altering research is kept hidden or just is not investigated any further. They do so through lobbying groups, campaign donations and all the other mechanisms mentioned above. The point is, it is not just about money any more.

The point I am trying to make is that, even though communism was an ineffective economical system, capitalism seems to be showing some of its flaws as well. Just as we realized socialism was not the best way to move forward, I believe we will soon realize capitalism is not the solution either. At least as it is right now, with disregard for communal interests, a lack of a social conscience and lawless markets. A mix between the two ideals may be the answer, I honestly do not know. However, I do know that, as we are today, we are at risk of falling prey to populist rhetoric, anarchy and we endanger our future.

Masdar, the Green City

What should the city of the future be like? Should the focus be on technology? Catering to everyone’s needs? To answer that we would probably need to know what the future is going to be like. Either way, Abu Dhabi went ahead and designed their version of a city made for the future and they have already started building it. It is called Masdar City and it aims to be a sustainable place that relies solely on renewable energy sources. Six square kilometres of environmentally sustainable architecture, with a capacity to house up to 50,000 people, 1,500 businesses and an extra 60,000 daily commuters.

The city will be powered by a mix of renewable energy sources the main one being solar energy. Two gigantic solar power plants will be built on the outskirts of the city and solar panels will be placed on most roofs, with the total production amounting to 130 megawatts. Wind and geothermal energy will also be used to power the city but on a much smaller scale. In addition to these energy sources, Masdar City will have the world’s largest hydrogen reactor.

The aim of the city is not only to produce clean energy but to maximize its use. Thus, the city has been designed to minimize the use of air conditioning. Buildings will be build close together, making sure they shade each other, and carefully positioned as to maximize the cooling powers of wind currents. Most materials, such as the tiles on the floor, will have cooling properties, and the city will have a perimeter wall designed to keep out the hot desert winds.

Masdar City
Masdar City’s architecture and materials reduce the need for air conditioning

As for transportation, the motorized vehicles are banned from the city, to reduced carbon dioxide emissions. The original project intended for people to move around using public mass transit and personal rapid transit (PRT) systems. The idea was abandoned to reduce costs but only electric vehicles will be allowed to circulate inside the city. A minor setback in a project that seems to be worth the wait and that, besides its environmental motivation, has an economic one.

Masdar means ‘source’ in Arabic, and the thought behind this project is also to make sure Abu Dhabi is ready when fossil fuels become obsolete or the country’s reserves run out. In a way, it is a way to diversify the country’s income and energy source. The emirate’s economy is dependent on oil exports so why not diversify? The aim is to spend less on energy production to maximize oil profits, while they last. At the same time, the country’s government, which is main stakeholder of the entire project, is investing in the development of new technology that one day might be sold to every corner of the planet, as the world turns green.

The entire project is expected to cost between 13,4 and 15,8 billion euros and has been delayed due to the global impact of the financial crisis. It was supposed to be completed by 2015, a deadline that has been pushed to 2025. However, despite the delays, some of the city’s facilities are already functional, such as the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a research facility developed in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and that has been helping with the engineering plans for the city.

Masdar Institute of Science and Technology
The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology

What at first looks like one of the many megalomaniac projects we are used to see in Gulf countries, is actually an interesting endeavour to create a sustainable, efficient and, ultimately, marketable concept of a city that can become essential in years to come. Men’s impact on the planet is less and less up to debate and Masdar City explores solutions to some of the issues posed by our actions on Earth. The idea can inspire others to follow the same path and, hopefully, lead humankind towards a more clean and sustainable way of life.

I recommend watching the following report from Bloomberg Brink for additional information:

Watch the full report here.

What will happen in Ukraine?

All eyes are on the Kremlin. Events in Crimea have escalated in the last few hours and have challenged the notion that Europe had become a war free continent. Russia has sent unidentified troops into a sovereign nation’s territory and is now preparing to “defend its interests” in the region – which, according to the media, is to protect all the Russian speaking people in Crimea.  Ukraine, as expected, has condemned the move and is prepared to defend itself. As for the rest of the world, the reactions have been of shock and a call for the de-escalation of the situation.

War is a likely scenario but not the most likely. However, if war was to break out, Russian troops would easily overpower the Ukrainian military.  Russia has a military force of about 845,000 troops, more than 200,000 of which are stationed in regions near the Ukrainian border. On the other side, Ukraine has still significant but much smaller force of  about 130,000 strong.  These numbers mean that if Russia were to invade, it would probably win the invasion stage of the war, but they do not tell the whole story.

Once Ukraine, is occupied, Russia would have to deal with insurgency. In Crimea, if the troops currently stationed there are not recalled by Moscow, they would have to face a radicalising Tartar minority and some ethnic Russians that might speak the language but prefer to live in an independent Ukraine. Turns out that the latter group is quite big so, it is a mistake to assume that ethnic Russians are Russians.

As Iraq and Afghanistan have showed, insurgency can be problematic, even for the biggest military in the world. Chechnya is another example that Russians might relate to more easily.  And like in the separatist region, there are a lot of mountains in Crimea. So, war would be costly for Russia, in the long run, but also, on a short term perspective.

The international community has been quick to blame Russia for this action and the consequences for the Kremlin could be dire. As American journalist, Fareed Zakaria, mentions, border “countries like Poland that had eased up relations with Moscow will now view it with great suspicion. All European countries will put their relations with Russia under review”, and that will have its economic impact. Even if the EU is faced with this crisis during a moment of weakness – financially and politically – that takes waging war out of the equation, it is still is an economic and diplomatic power to be reckoned. The same goes for the US, that would not want to enter its third war, since the beginning of the century, but can still penalize Russia through other means. Last but not least, we must also consider China, which has partnered up with Russia on several key international policy issues, but has always been a fierce defender of national sovereignty – mostly because it wants to other country to meddle into its internal affairs – and might reconsider its relationship with Moscow following this move.

War seems unlikely because of what it will cost Russia which is no longer a soviet state but a full fledged capitalist economy, with much to loose from all the severed ties. So what does Russia want with Crimea? The answer could be leverage for some sort of economic deal and the possibility of maintaining some political influence over a border country that has been flirting with Brussels and distancing itself from Moscow.

The two faces of Robert Mugabe

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?