Normally when all that white people have to say about a black man, especially a black leader, is that he is ‘smart’, ‘clever’ or ‘a good speaker’, it is usually not meant as a compliment. In most cases it means that you are going beyond the boundaries they have set for you. You are becoming stubborn, self-important and arrogant ( In Jim Crow United States, being considered an ‘uppity negro,’ the pejorative term that was used by whites to refer to blacks who couldn’t ‘stay in their place’ could trouble, not just from the Ku Klux Klan but from the government itself. Whereas young radicals of those days such as Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Black Panther firebrands Huey P. Newton and Fred Hampton considered such a label a badge of honour and proudly wore it up their sleeves, many of them paid a terrible price for their uppitiness).
And yet all the obituaries in the Western Press almost in unison talk about the brilliance of this African giant so much so that they have to mean it. Which makes Mugabe the first African to make the western press, albeit painstakingly, tell the truth about positive attributes of an African anti-colonial revolutionary.
Robert Mugabe’s cardinal sin in the eyes of the Western World was not that he killed thousands of supporters of his Nationalist rival Joshua Nkomo in Matebeleland in the early 1980s (More of this later) or his poor record of democracy and governance in the later years. After all, Britain and other Western Powers did absolutely nothing to stop the so-called ‘Gukurahundi’ Massacres. Mugabe then had not yet become uppity. He was still the obedient leader that left alone western interests in commercial farming, mining, and other political and economic interests.
The Real trouble for Mugabe started when he began, rightly so, to question the colossal injustice of the country’s tiny white minority, 5 percent of the population, owning 70% of the best arable land. The morally justified but haphazardly executed ‘land reform program’ led to landless Zimbabweans invading white owned farms in the year 2000. The so-called ‘targeted’ sanctions, began in 2002, in a remarkably coordinated ‘Alliance’ effort by the United States, Britain, EU, and other countries.
These Sanctions brought the country, but not its leader, to its knees. He continued his land reform program. He insulted western leaders in eloquent, defiant speech at the United Nations (He once called Tony Blair a troublesome little boy and accused U.S. President George W. Bush of “rank hypocrisy” )
Mugabe’s cardinal sin
Robert Mugabe’s relentless pursuit of his country’s self-determination, his unwillingness to compromise, his indefatigable spirit and energy in exposing Western Hypocrisy made him an implacable foe to the west, an antagonist that couldn’t be had for any price. The Western media portrayed him as evil incarnate.
Even in Death, Robert Mugabe continues to rattle the editors of Western globalist papers, from the front pages of the New York Times and The Washington Post, to Op Ed pages of nearly all newspapers across the pond in Britain. Most of the Obituaries I have read of him in these papers only mention in passing his role in liberating Zimbabwe from British colonialism, and his efforts to desegregate the country’s education and healthcare systems. They don’t say anything about the role of Western sanctions in crippling Zimbabwe’s economy, or the necessity, albeit haphazardly executed, of his land reforms.
Mugabe’s despotic turn after independence in 1980 was not unique in Africa’s post-colonial state. Most post-independence governments descended into violence almost immediately after the colonial master left for all sorts of reasons, including of course the fact that the colonialist never actually left in the true sense of the word, and stayed lurking in the shadows seeking to continue protecting his interests. Many British colonies immediately ditched British Parliamentary system of to presidential systems. Mugabe considered Joshua Nkomo, his fellow nationalist leader as an existential threat to his power and wanted to remove that threat as quickly as he could. Milton Obote did the same in Uganda when he deposed the Kabaka. The opposite happened in Zaire and Burkina Faso with Mobutu upstaging Lumumba, and Blaise Campaore doing the same to Thomas Sankara respectively, in both cases of course with western help.
On a purely political standpoint therefore, Mugabe the politician, in purging his opponents post 1980 did nothing unprecedented. His ruthlessness in doing so is what was/is upsetting and what no one, however much you might love African revolutionary leaders, can fail to condemn. What is also notable is the hypocrisy of the West and its media in pretending that the reason they imposed sanctions and made Mugabe an international pariah, was because he was undemocratic and violent towards his people. The west then and now supported many despotic regimes across the continent that were far more brutal.
Mugabe’s decision to pursue white Zimbabwean farmers under his controversial land reform was the reason why the West threw the kitchen sink at him. He had touched the proverbial anus of the leopard.
Mugabe’s land reform went horribly wrong but the blame for that is shared by many stakeholders even though the global media blames only him. Land redistribution was a contentious part of the Lancaster House negotiations that gave Zimbabweans self-rule. Whites were only 5 % of Zimbabwe’s population but owned 70 % of the most prime, arable land. While all sides agreed that this historic injustice had to be addressed and Britain tacitly promised to lead the charge, no mechanisms were spelt out in the agreement on how that redistribution would be executed. The truth is whites, just like the White land barons of South Africa, Namibia, Kenya and other countries with significant European settler populations, never seriously wanted to give up any portion of their mostly looted land back to the natives. Tony Blair was in no hurry to do anything about it when he became Prime Minister in 1997, and in fact, like most Brits, didn’t believe that Britain had any obligation to do so.
When Mugabe took the issue to the referendum in 2000 and it was defeated, his political survival instincts kicked in once again. Millions of poor and landless Zimbabweans, including thousands of veterans that had fought in his guerrilla war that brought him to power were putting him under pressure. Not to mention that He knew land expropriation would give him a key patronage resource to dole to his lieutenants to cement his political support.
When Mugabe therefore unleashed members of his “War Veterans Association” to occupy white-owned farms under what came to be known as the “Fast-Track Land Reform Programme”, it was an illegal, but politically necessary act for Mugabe, for his survival, at least of the short term.
The political and economic consequences of the botched land reform was immediate and severe and has been endlessly written about. What is curious is the scant attention paid to the impact of western sanctions that were imposed a year or so after that. Just like the Economic blockade of Cuba and the Iraq sanctions that killed an estimated 1 million Iraqi children, Western sanctions against Zimbabwe caused, (and indeed continue to cause) devastating effects on its people. Imposed just to punish a stubborn leader that couldn’t kowtow to Western whims, the so-called ‘smart’, ‘targeted’ sanctions ended up being among the least smart things Western powers ever did in Africa.
Mugabe’s undeniable public policy achievements
Besides his anti-imperial exploits, Mugabe succeeded in other elements of state craft and governance. His role in creating Africa’s best education system in Zimbabwe is undisputed. Before the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programmes hit the continent in the early 1990s, Robert Mugabe’s first act as leader of post-colonial Zimbabwe was to deracialise the education system. Under Ian Smith, Zimbabwe’s education system had virtually been the replica of apartheid South Africa’s Bantu Education Act, where whites and blacks had two different systems. The tiny white populace received 90% of the funding, and schools in black areas were run mostly by missionaries.
Mugabe’s decision to invest in his country’s education is the sole reason that education is still respectable even after the collapse of its economy. If you have visited Zimbabwe, you will notice that its high literacy rates are apparent even to this day. A market vendor speaking impeccable English, a newspaper salesman engaging you in a riveting discussion of current affairs, etc. He did the same with the health sector which, while with far less success also gave black Zimbabweans more access to healthcare. One of the reasons Mugabe remained beloved in the countryside even as his brutality increased, was because of his commitment to rural dwellers by affording them education and healthcare. Ultimately the two sectors, as was the case with other public goods suffered heavily under the weight of economic decline and sanctions, but there is no denying that Mugabe was the steward of the reforms that initially made Zimbabwe a model African country in these areas.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on 21st February 1924 and died on 6th September 2019. Said to be a loner and bookworm who apparently carried a book even while tending cattle in the bush, Mugabe garnered a record 7 university degrees, making him one of the most educated, if not the most educated, leaders in the world. A fitness freak who, even in his 90s woke up every morning to workout, he was once quoted to have said, “I fall sick when I don’t exercise.” Mugabe neither drank alcohol nor smoked. His stubbornness and discipline especially in resisting white rule, might as well have helped him defy death for this long.
African political literature is full of narratives of leaders who fought valiantly for their countries. Few are as complicated as Mugabe. Loved and loathed almost in equal measure, it’s hard to put a definitive label on his legacy, at least not right now. Contrary to what most obituaries in the west are saying however, I believe with the benefit of hindsight, history will judge Mugabe fairly.
Among Africans, there is no doubt that he is one of the most riveting figures of the 20th and 21st centuries, and his commitment to the liberation of Zimbabwe and Africa is not in doubt. Given what is happening in neighbouring countries that are grappling with the issue of land reform such as South Africa, soon the world might realise that when it comes to righting a colossal historic wrong such as is this one, extremism might be an unavoidable part of the mechanisms of redress.
I won’t be surprised if history places Mugabe not far from the more ‘responsible’ leaders such as those in South Africa whose extreme caution and moderation boomeranged on their predecessors not long after they were gone. You can’t look at what is happening in South Africa today and you tell me that Mandela’s compromises are working just fine.
May Robert Gabriel Mugabe Rest in Eternal Peace.
Bernard Sabiti is a Ugandan Researcher and Political Analyst.
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