The death on September 6 of former President of Zimbabwe Robert Gabriel Mugabe marked the passing of one of the best known, longest lived and most impactful rulers in Africa. He died at the Gleneagles Hospital in Singapore at the age of 95, nearly two years after he was toppled from power.
Mugabe was born in Kutama village in Southern Rhodesia. He attended Kutama College and Fort Harare University, after which he worked as a teacher at home and in Ghana. He soon became active in the African nationalist movement, calling for his country’s independence from the White settlers that declared Unilateral Declaration of Independence, UDI, in 1965. Mugabe was arrested and imprisoned in 1964. Upon his release in 1974, he fled to Mozambique and there became the leader of Zimbabwe Africa National Union, ZANU. ZANU’s military wing, Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, ZANLA, raged a relentless war against Ian Smith’s White-settler UDI regime from bases in Mozambique.
In 1979, the British government convened talks at Lancaster House in London to end the Zimbabwean stalemate. Mugabe’s ZANU and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe Africa Peoples Union, ZAPU formed the Patriotic Front, PF. An agreement was signed that ended the war, disbanded the UDI regime and set up a British transitional regime that organised elections, which Mugabe’s ZANU-PF convincingly won. He was Prime Minister of Zimbabwe from 1980 to 1987 and then President from 1987 to 2017. Mugabe quickly became a foremost African statesman. From his early days in power however, he showed an authoritarian streak, fell out with his ZAPU-PF partners and launched a brutal crackdown of its members, especially in the southern Matabeleland province.
Robert Mugabe inherited a country with probably the best commercial agriculture in Africa and a vibrant industrial sector. Yet, most of the best land was still in the hands of White settlers, a very sore point for the generation of Zimbabweans that fought for independence. Trouble started in 1987, after the transitional provisions in the 1979 constitution expired and Mugabe’s government reopened the issue of land redistribution. With the benefit of hindsight, Mugabe thoroughly mishandled this issue, and it set the stage for the country’s descent into economic ruin and hyperinflation.
Initially, the British government gave the money for paying compensation to White settlers whose farms were acquired for redistribution to landless peasants. After the first round of the exercise however, the British government complained that the farms went to ZANU-PF leaders and it stopped giving more money. Mugabe however pressed on with the program and soon, tens of thousands of war veterans occupied White-owned farms. These protests ruined the country’s commercial farming and soon led to other problems.
Although Mugabe was still regarded as an icon within Africa, Western leaders, who never liked him in the first place, seized on the economic and political turmoil and soon made his country a pariah nation, subject to crippling sanctions. Economic woes and social unrest emboldened the internal opposition, led by the charismatic Morgan Tsvangirai, which mounted a democratic challenge to Mugabe. He responded with a heavy hand.
Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002 over accusations of human rights abuses and economic mismanagement. During the meeting of heads of government conference a year later, Mugabe quit the Commonwealth. Hyper inflation was the lot of Zimbabwe during the latter years of Mugabe’s rule. In 2008 and 2009, the state’s central bank printed so much Zimbabwe dollar that hyperinflation peaked at 500 billion per cent, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Two years ago, due to very advanced age, Mugabe made another mistake when he tried to sack Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and possibly position his wife, Grace, to succeed him as president. Military chiefs then moved in, removed Mugabe and Mnangagwa ended up as the president. Despite these avoidable mistakes, Robert Mugabe’s place is secure in the annals of Africa’s greatest nationalists and freedom fighters. May his great soul rest in peace.