The Rise and Fall of Robert Mugabe

Africa Article
The Rise and Fall of Robert Mugabe
Michael Osiyale and Ellen Carpenter | 2019 - October to December | Africa
Michael Osiyale and Ellen Carpenter consider the impact of Mugabe's rule on Zimbabwe

One of the most notable incidents in African affairs in 2019 was undoubtedly the death of Robert Mugabe, former president of Zimbabwe, in September. Mugabe, who died whilst receiving treatment for an undisclosed illness in Singapore at the age of 97, was a figure whose shadow loomed large over Zimbabwe for the past four and a half decades; an individual who became synonymous with Zimbabwe on the international stage.

Mugabe ascended to power as a hero and liberator to both his people and the world at large during the Zimbabwean Civil War of 1965-1980. A former teacher by profession, he rose to prominence as the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), a political party and militant group that became instrumental in ending colonialism and white minority rule in the country that was at the time known as Rhodesia.

When Mugabe first became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980, there were many who probably saw him as a contemporary Nelson Mandela. Both men were Pan-African Marxists who figure-headed movements against white minority rule in their respective African nations; both served time as political prisoners as part of their liberation struggles. And both men began their time as democrats trying to balance the pursuit racial reconciliation with the social elevation of the country’s black majority.

Mandela died a global icon; Mugabe, however, went out as an international pariah. Perhaps the best illustration of the disparity between the two men is reflected in their funerals. Both funerals took place in international stadiums, with Mandela’s attended by international dignitaries from every corner of the globe. Mugabe’s funeral, on the other hand, was barely a quarter full, with many Zimbabweans openly revelling in his demise rather than mourning him. So where did it all go so wrong for Robert Mugabe?

The damage done to Zimbabwe by Mugabe’s rule is well-documented. Zimbabwe began to experience major economic decline during the mid-1990s, a decline the country has never recovered from, and which has been exacerbated since by unparalleled hyperinflation caused by calamitous monetary policies.

Perhaps most damaging to Mr. Mugabe’s legacy is this infamous economic mismanagement, which he combined with staggering levels of personal enrichment, leading to the end of IMF investments in 1999 and a freeze on international development aid from the U.K. in 2000. By then, however, Mugabe had already turned his attention to other methods of short-term financial gain. In February 2000, young militias under the banner of ‘Civil War Veterans’ attacked and appropriated the lands of white farmers, in what Mugabe referred to as a spontaneous uprising against the country’s white elite - despite his own very obvious financial investment in the project, and his role in forcing judges who ruled these land confiscations illegal to resign.         

In the final decades of his rule, Mugabe showed a pitiless disdain for the Rule of Law and the human rights of his people, regardless of their skin colour. This became most obvious after he lost his first election majority in 2000. Rather than step down himself, or share power, he violently attacked his political opponents; at least twenty-seven state-sponsored murders and over six hundred abductions occurred in the period. The use of violence and intimidation to cling on to power at any cost permanently marred his reputation, although it was to bribery that he turned in the 2013 elections, which ultimately helped him to secure ZANU-PF’s majority.     

Mugabe was removed from power as a ruthless dictator, and by reputation became the prototypical despot of the post-Cold War, post-colonial era. For years prior to his death, critics tried to chalk up Zimbabwe’s woes under Mugabe as an inevitable consequence of self-governance in post-colonial Africa. Such criticisms are undoubtedly based on racist tropes about Africans and an assumed inability to govern successfully, without ever acknowledging the social, economic and psychological legacies of colonialism that affect the region.

There should be no regrets about the liberation of Zimbabwe from colonialism and white minority rule. The real regret lies in the behaviour of man himself; in his corrupt lifestyle choices, in his denial of fundamental human rights and – equally importantly - in his supporters’ insistence on turning a blind eye to his very obvious failings.

Zimbabwe had the potential to be a jewel in Africa’s crown. Although naturally resource-rich, Mugabe left the country in a state of poverty, with low life expectancy, inadequate healthcare, and an economy unable to cope with the vicissitudes of both the African and wider global financial markets. His lamentable and self-destructive lust for power came at the expense of the Zimbabwean people, in what is undoubtedly the country’s greatest post-colonial tragedy.