“In history, the nihilistic conception of man as an enigma, sometimes to the point of naivety, has often given rise to the hegemony of a few hedonists who derive their power from the successful manipulation of man’s unstable personality or structure. Although the instability of the individual personality does not by any measure, make the human essence confusing or enigmatic, the person that manipulates man’s inherent weaknesses sponge on the these deficiencies, mystify their own competence for smartness and, in the end, impose themselves on others with the spurious claim of the right to leadership because, according to their own conceit, they know what the insignificant majority are yet to understand”.
The above is the opening paragraph of the prologue in my book “African Dictators: The Logic of Tyranny and Lessons from History” published in 1990. The thrust of that book is that the history of Africa is replete with dictators, tyrants and state-terrorists that have learnt nothing from history. Although such dictators thrive in intimidation, oppression and annihilation of their subjects, their apparatuses eventually become incapable of averting mass revolt and social upheavals against their dictatorial tendencies. In other words, history has a way of disgracing those who refuse to learn from it.
This appears to be the lot of Robert Mugabe, the former President of Zimbabwe and the hero of the liberation struggle in then Southern Rhodesia. His resignation, last Tuesday, marks the end of an era; the end of the last dictator in Africa and the end of democratic dictatorship in Zimbabwe. There is no doubt that Mugabe will go down in history as a Trojan of freedom. He was a foremost liberation fighter, whose impact on the liberation struggles in South Africa and other apartheid enclaves in Southern Africa was far-reaching. Even in his determination to secure the freedom of his people, he was subjected to various manners of humiliation, imprisonment and bodily harm one of which was the allegation that British colonial authorities sought to render him impotent through castration.
Born February 21st 1924 in the Kutama Province of the then Southern Rhodesia, Robert Mugabe will go down in history as a foremost Zimbabwean revolutionary and politician. From 1980, when Zimbabwe declared her independence to 1987, he served as the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe and transmuted into an executive president in 1987; a position he held with vice-grip until he was compelled to resign. He is by every definition an African nationalist who sought to entrench and practice his own form of Marxist-Leninist ideology called Mugabeism.
Mugabe could be said to have had a humble beginning. Educated at both the Kutama College and University of Forte Hare, Mugabe worked as teacher in Southern and Northern Rhodesia as well as Ghana before he became a full-time revolutionary. As a matter of fact, in Ghana, he was taught revolutionary tactics and praxis by the late S.G Ikoku. Mugabe was unhappy that despite the majority of blacks in Southern Rhodesia, which at that time was a British colony, the area was still ruled by white minority. It was his disgust for the racism and segregation that was rife in his political space at that time that compelled him to seek channels to vent his frustration.
He found solace in the writings of Karl Marx and devoured numerous Marxist literatures in a short while. Feeling ideologically equipped, Mugabe joined the protests by African nationalists in Southern Rhodesia agitating for an independent State that would be led by the blacks. Not being a person given to docility, Mugabe would soon make his feelings against white minority regime known to all and sundry. He began to issue very caustic and damaging attacks on white minority rule in his place. He was becoming a thorn in the flesh of the white minority regime. He was arrested, detained and eventually imprisoned for ten years (1964-1974) on charges of sedition.
When he was released from prison, he fled to neighbouring Mozambique where he, along other revolutionaries founded the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) in 1975. He became the chairman of the group, and was the mastermind of the ZANU guerrilla war against the Ian Smith’s white minority government. From 1978 to 1979, he participated in peace negotiations at the behest of the British government. These negotiations would eventually lead to the Lancaster House Agreement, which ultimately led to the dismantling of white minority rule in Southern Rhodesia.
The transition time-table for a democratic process that would lead to majority government was set under the Lancaster agreement for 1980. It was at this point that ZANU transited from a freedom-fighting organization to a political party; thus changing certain of its rules and organizational profile to Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).
In 1980, Mugabe led the ZANU-PF to electoral victory and emerged as the Prime Minister. Desperate to rid the new country of its colonial heritage, the new ZANU-PF government under Mugabe renamed Southern Rhodesia Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s initial policies brought rapid expansion to critical sectors of the Zimbabwean economy especially in areas like healthcare and education, even though it could be said that he favoured conservative economic policies.
At independence in 1980, Zimbabwe had its own teething challenges; the foremost being racial reconciliation. White Zimbabweans were leaving the country in droves feeling that the new black majority government would unleash reprisal attacks on them. Hence, even when Mugabe called for racial reconciliation, this call had little or no consequence. In addition to this racial issue, the new Mugabe administration had to contend with the shenanigans of Joshua Nkomo and his Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). Relations between ZANU-PF and ZAPU were deteriorating rapidly. From 1982 to 1985, Mugabe’s administration was able to crush ZAPU-related oppositions in Matabeleland. It is estimated that Mugabe’s 5th Brigade killed at least 10,000 people in that operation- most of the victims being Ndebele civilians.
Apart from his roles in the second Congo war, and chairing of the Non-Aligned Movement (1986-1989), the defunct Organization of African Unity (1997-1998) and later the African Union (2015-2016), perhaps Mugabe’s most enduring legacy was the land redistribution policy in Zimbabwe. This policy was one of Mugabe’s thrusts at ridding Zimbabwe of its last vestiges of colonialism. Before independence in 1980, much of the land in Zimbabwe was controlled by white farmers, while the blacks had no land. The initial thrust of this policy was that willing whites should sell parcels of land to blacks that are willing to buy.
Incidentally, this strategy did not work as expected. Frustrated perhaps by the tacit unwillingness of the white farmers to sell land to the blacks, Mugabe in 2000 urged the black Zimbabweans to violently seize white-owned lands. This marked the turning point in the economic downturn of Zimbabwe. Virtually all the white farmers lost their lands.The implication was drastic and instant. Food production plummeted leading to famine, economic decline and international sanctions. Opposition to his administration grew more strident and his grip on power became more vicious.
So, in real terms, Mugabe can be numbered among the fearless revolutionary heroes of African liberation struggle who helped Zimbabwe gain her freedom from British colonialism, imperialism and white minority domination. But that is where his contributions end..
Like most dictators, Mugabe failed to acknowledge one fact: That a hero must leave the stage when the ovation is loudest. Like most dictators, Mugabe failed to understand that mentorship is a critical component of leadership. He, like most dictators, failed to groom a successor. He trusted nobody. He alienated his people and subjected them to unimaginable economic hardship. He became increasingly controversial and divisive. From a hero of freedom struggle, Mugabe became a dictator who will go down in history as supervising the economic despoliation of Zimbabwe, of enthroning corruption as an article of faith in governance in Zimbabwe, as the leader who grossly abused the rights of his people and sought to suppress the voice of the opposition.
This is a sad narrative of a man who ordinarily should be the object of veneration, not just in Zimbabwe but also in Africa. It is indeed a sad end to a robust beginning. Mugabe had no reason to be forced to resign in the manner he did. It is a sad commentary on his awe-inspiring credentials as a foremost freedom fighter. Trapped in the comfort zone of power, Mugabe lost touch with reality and failed to recognize that it was time for him to go. Manipulating the leadership of ZANU-PF for self-perpetuation in power became his major pre-occupation. Power, for Mugabe was not a means to an end; but an end in itself. But he failed to realize that power is an aphrodisiac; that power has revolving doors- bringing a man in from one door and throwing him out from the other. Until African leaders recognize the essence of leadership succession, we will continue to have crisis of succession. Africa must demonstrate serious commitment to overcome this scourge in other to bequeath sustainable leadership succession in African states.