Robert Mugabe: Dictator or Liberator?
The first leader of independent Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, died in Singapore on September 6, 2019. He was 95. Until 2017, Mugabe was the only leader post-colonial Zimbabwe had ever known. He is both an icon of African liberation and one of Africa’s most evil dictators. However, his rise to power directly contradicts his present image as a tyrant.
Mugabe, the Revolutionary
Mugabe’s career began in the late 1950s, as a guerrilla fighter who confronted the white-minority rule in what was then Rhodesia, evolving from a quiet schoolteacher to a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary. He joined the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, led by Joshua Nkumo, a future rival. During his campaign, Mugabe was jailed for ten years. Using his guile and extraordinary persuasive abilities, however, he quickly emerged to split from Nkumo’s party and create his own: the Zimbabwean National African Union.
In 1979, he successfully toppled Ian Smith’s white supremacist regime. The international community, including his own people, lauded Mugabe as a symbol of liberation. Thereafter, Mugabe formed a coalition government in newly independent Zimbabwe.
Mugabe, the flawed but efficient President
The first ten years of Mugabe’s presidency can be characterized as a rocky, but triumphant era for Zimbabwe. It became Africa’s most prosperous economies, characterized as “Africa’s breadbasket” due to its prosperous agricultural policies. Furthermore, Mugabe fulfilled his campaign promises and increased access to education and provided universal healthcare, both factors which drastically improved the standard of living.
This so-called triumphant era was however stained by the ethnic cleansing of Mugabe’s opponents as Mugabe and Nkumo’s rivalry flared up again, but in the form of ethnic divisions. While Mugabe’s ZANU party recruited from the Shona ethnic group, Nkumo held the support of the minority Ndebele. Mugabe attempted to eliminate his political opposition through a “Gukurahundi” brigade of militants, tasked with purging the Ndebele minority. This massacre, classified as a genocide by the International Association of Genocide Scholars, killed an estimated 20,000 people. Despite the severity of his actions, the international community largely turned a blind eye. While Mugabe’s actions did not dissolve the opposition, it did consolidate his power over the country.
Mugabe, the Dictator
The turning point in international attention and economic prosperity came in 2000, with the seizure of white-owned farms. Given that a significant amount of white farmers were supporters of ZAPU, the opposition party, Mugabe enacted a law to drive white farmers out of their lands and return them to black Africans. While energetically championed by Mugabe’s supporters, the policy not only destroyed the agricultural economy, but attracted international outcry. The remaining authority of the rule of law was diminished as Mugabe devastated Zimbabwe’s economic viability on both the domestic and international scale by acting exclusively in his self-interest.
Economic downfall reached its nadir during the 2008 financial crisis. Hyperinflation peaked at 89.7 sextillion percent in November 2008, making the country’s currency essentially worthless. One quarter of Zimbabweans emigrated as refugees and cholera plagued the capital. Mugabe quickly became a pariah as foreign investors turned away from the once-prosperous state and the economy collapsed.
Mugabe deflected the fault of his government to the Western sanctions, arguing that Western states purposefully placed sanctions on Zimbabwe in order to destabilize the state, even though the sanctions largely consisted of an asset freeze and a travel ban on Mugabe and his entourage only. This anti-colonialist attitude was shared by many Zimbabweans, who blamed the economic collapse on foreign actions and not Mugabe himself.
Mugabe, the Tyrant
Mugabe’s violent campaign against his opposition reignited after his loss in the 2008 election. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a newly formed political party, fell short of a majority, ensuing a run-off vote. Mugabe intimidated voters through security forces and militias prior to the vote, discouraging the opposition and guaranteeing his victory. This integrally damaged already flawed democratic institutions.
After the 2008 elections the Mugabe regime entered its most destructive era yet. The First Lady’s increased involvement in politics sparked the military coup and Mugabe’s subsequent resignation, as top advisors viewed her as a possible successor. While this was supposed to signal a new beginning for Zimbabweanas, little has changed.
After 37 years in office, Mugabe became a political institution as himself. His influence over Zimbabwe is long-lasting and unlikely to be overturned. The downfall of Zimbabwe’s economy, both today and in the past, however, is not a consequence of the leader himself but the institution he inhabited. Mugabe relied on powers that undermined the state’s democracy to advance his own interests. In many ways, he continued the legacy of white minority rule in his subversion of democratic institutions and disregard for the rule of law. Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s current President, has continued many of the same repressive policies.
Despite Mnanagagwa’s promise to reboot the economy and restore foreign investment, the economy is once again in free fall. Inflation is running at 175 percent, fuel prices have hiked up by 150 percent, and 2.5 million citizens are on the cusp of starvation. These issues are grave reminders of Mugabe’s Presidency for Zimbabweans, who find themselves stuck in the same vicious cycle. Mnanagagwa is also doing little to regain access to foreign funds, which are sanctioned because of human rights violations of the Mugabe era. Instead, he is continuing this suppression by squashing protests through the use of violent military force.
Mugabe’s legacy, therefore, remains in Zimbabwean society and likely will for the coming decades. While some Zimbabweans still admire his courage and genius when liberating Africa from white rule, the truth of his destructive and self-obsessed nature remain a source of misery for millions. His reputation for violently repressing opposition, at any cost, continues in political life today. Zimbabweans are grappling with the dichotomy Mugabe embodies, and there is likely no true reconciliation for his legacy. It is undeniable, however, that democracy in Zimbabwe has a long way to go and rather than focusing on the individual qualities of each leader, the institution themselves need to be changed.