At the forefront of the liberation struggle, the constitutional conferences and the mediation by the international community that freed Zimbabwe from the vice-like grip of white minority rule, one man stood out – Robert Gabriel Mugabe. He was as stubborn as they come. The then Permanent Representative of the United States of America at the United Nations, Andrew Young, out of exasperation or in admiration of the intellectual quality of this African legend said of him: ‘when you have a man who combines Jesuit education with Marxist ideology, you have one hell of a guy to deal with’.
Indeed, he was the nightmare of the imperialists who insisted on tying that African country to their apron strings perpetually. But to his compatriots, he was the quintessential nationalist committed to the emancipation of fatherland from colonialism. To them, he was the man they could trust to lead the country to the Promised Land where freedom and justice will reign supreme. The average Zimbabwean demonstrated this faith in him when they overwhelmingly voted for him and his faction of the Zimbabwean African National Union/ Patriotic Front (ZANU/PF) in the Independence Election of 1980. That made him the first Prime Minister of free Zimbabwe. Ideologically, Mugabe was a combination of African nationalism and Marxism–Leninism which he, at some point, re-engineered to a shade of socialism. Based on this ideological hybrid, his policies were euphemistically referred to as Mugabeism.
Mugabe was indignant that his native land was named Southern Rhodesia after one buccaneer from Europe, a certain Mr Rhodes, and made a colony of the British Empire governed by its white minority. His anger steered the patriotic fervour in him which he vented by joining the emerging African nationalist protests that called for an independent state led by representatives of the black majority.
Moulded as a hard core revolutionary, he believed that armed struggle was the way out. His base was in Mozambique where he established his leadership of ZANU, and oversaw its role in the Rhodesian Bush War, fighting Ian Smith’s predominantly white government. The war escalated with the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965. However, he was soon to discover that most wars, including bitter ones, often ended on the negotiation table.
Pressures from his African collaborators, especially, his host, Samora Machel and Nigeria under Olusegun Obasanjo, compelled him to accept negotiation as part of the process towards achieving the ultimate goal of freedom for Zimbabwe. He reluctantly took part in the peace negotiations brokered by the United Kingdom that resulted in the Lancaster House Agreement. This agreement ended the war and resulted in the 1980 general election, in which his party, ZANU-PF won.
As Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, he took on not just the white minority elements nostalgic about lost privileges but his compatriots like Joshua Nkomo and his Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). These steps enmeshed him in controversies that trailed his 37- year rule and eventually led to his ouster in a palace coup in 2017.
Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924 to a poor Shona family in Kutama in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Following an education at Kutama College and the University of Fort Hare, he worked as a school teacher in Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, and Ghana. After making anti-government comments, he was convicted of sedition and imprisoned between 1964 and 1974. As Prime Minister, his calls for racial reconciliation failed to stem growing white emigration, while relations with Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) also deteriorated. Pursuing decolonisation, Mugabe emphasised the redistribution of land controlled by white farmers to landless blacks, initially on a “willing seller–willing buyer” basis.
Frustrated at the slow rate of redistribution, from 2000 he encouraged black Zimbabweans to violently seize white-owned farms. Food production was severely impacted, leading to famine, economic decline, and international sanctions. Opposition to Mugabe grew, but he was re-elected in 2002, 2008, and 2013. In 2017, members of his own party ousted him in a coup, replacing him with former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa. He died in Singapore at the age of 95.
Having dominated Zimbabwe’s politics for nearly four decades, Mugabe was a controversial figure. He was praised as a revolutionary hero of the African liberation struggle who helped free Zimbabwe from British colonialism, imperialism, and white minority rule. Critics accused Mugabe of being a dictator responsible for economic mismanagement, widespread corruption, anti-white racism, human rights abuses, and crimes against humanity.
But a tribute to him by his successor, encapsulates the image of the man who became the scourge of the West. Mnangagwa said of Mugabe he served as Vice President: “The entire nation of Zimbabwe, our people, across the board are grieved and are in mourning because the light which led us to independence is no more, but his works, his ideology will continue to guide this nation,”
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