corruptionwatch WITH TAWANDA MAJONI
Numerous international media houses started preparing former president Robert Mugabe’s obituary many years ago. The BBC, CNN, and so on.
It’s not very obvious why they were so much in a hurry to tell the world about the man once he breathed his last breath, but what’s clear is that Mugabe was — and remains — international news. For the good and the ugly, but, in the eyes of the global media, mainly the ugly. But then, in the words of the former president himself, he was the only person who beat Jesus Christ for the dying record. While Jesus died once and rose up once, he had done that many times.
That’s true, but not literally. There had been so many stories about him dying yet he kept on despite increasingly failing health. In fact, he bragged that he would live up to 100 years, a time-frame he missed by just over four years. So, when he passed on last Thursday, two descriptions dominated the reportage by the international media — a liberator and tyrant. In fact, that’s the way a lot of Zimbabweans and the world still regard him. Well, some would rather talk of him as a liberator only, and some as tyrant only.
The truth, of course, is that he was a confusing and complex contradiction if you look at him as political man. He was two enigmatic and discordant personalities moving as one person. And most of the time people missed and still miss this point. There is a tendency to analyse him in the context of time. A good guy in the years before and immediately after independence in 1980. Then a bad guy a few years from independence until he was forced out of power through a smart coup by his own lieutenants in November 2017.
Some would say he was also good into the new millennium even though he had already started making mistakes in the eighties. On the good side, they say he courageously and brilliantly led the war against colonialism. He stuck to his guns — even though they say he never carried a gun in his life — at Lancaster in 1979 during British-led negotiations for majority rule. While some of the nationalists seemed prepared to make self-defeating concessions to the Rhodesian Front, Mugabe, as the leader of Zanu, often threatened to go back to the bush if their demands were not met.
The Lancaster House agreement was a compromise, of course, but not a very bad one. Precisely because it paved the way for a cease fire and the holding of the first majority election in early 1980, dismantling Ian Smith’s version of apartheid. And, despite all the brutalities that the illegal regime of Ian Smith had committed against the blacks in Southern Rhodesia which later became independent Zimbabwe, Mugabe adopted a policy of reconciliation and peaceful co-existence with the whites. Many had already fled the country, of course, but Ian Smith walked around and talked, freely, as if he had always been Angel Gabriel until he passed away.
From early independence, Mugabe, as prime minister, embarked on several programmes that significantly empowered a hitherto repressed black majority. He built schools, clinics and bridges. He even gave blacks farms at that stage through at least two phases of resettlements. But he couldn’t do much because the Lancaster House constitution provided for a willing buyer-willing seller model, with most of the prime land still remaining in the hands of, comparatively speaking, a few white people.
And over the decades, Mugabe was consistent in his talk about the total emancipation of indigenous peoples. In Zimbabwe, Africa and the rest of the global south. Towards the start of the new millennium, now as executive president, he led the compulsory appropriation of land from whites who had resisted willingly selling it to ensure distributive justice. While there was almost unanimous agreement that blacks had to get land, there were huge problems with the timing, motivation and manner in which the fast track land redistribution programme was carried out.
His critics complained bitterly that the fast-track programme was meant as a diversionary tactic at a time he was fast losing popularity. They said he embarked on that programme to dilute the influence of the white population which was siding with the opposition. And they said it was done with barely any regard for property and human rights.
This fast-track land redistribution programme provides a ready example of the dual—hypocritical if you like—nature of Mugabe’s personality. He couched the programme on the mantra of bringing equality and equity in land ownership. Yet, by the time he was forced out of office, he had some fifteen farms to his name. Juicy farmland at a time the majority of the land reform beneficiaries had been condemned to unyielding, rocky and unfertile land. His lieutenants helped themselves to prime land too, at the expense of the majority. Many took more than one farm each.
The programme was supposed to be guided by the one-family-one-farm principle. Mugabe knew of the rampant multiple farm ownership, where he was also part. At least two land audits were done, one by the Utete Commission and another led by former minister, Flora Bhuka. They were damning on multiple farm ownership and underutilisation of the resettled land. Yet, despite his repeated threats to deal with the offenders, Mugabe did nothing.
Research that has been done in recent years indicates that the programme built the capacity of hitherto communal farmers to produce more crops. That sounds like good news. But it doesn’t take away the reality that it provided the late ex-president with a self-enriching opportunity, in direct contradiction to universal equality in landholding.
This is very important to note. In many parts of Africa, Mugabe has been hailed as a hero for taking back land and giving it to the blacks despite international —particularly western — pressure. But that move has been tainted by his own selfishness. You are tempted to believe his critics who accused him of adopting the fast- track programme so as to ensure his own political and personal self-preservation.
You will always remember Mugabe for his emphatic talk urging the total liberation and solid self-consciousness of the Africans. He became famous for his tough talk on this at the United Nations, the African Union, Sadc summits and other platforms.
That was pleasant to hear and, for that, you would put him in the same class with the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Samora Machel and Julius Nyerere, the icons of African liberation. Mugabe invariably called for an African identity, self-reliance and self-pride.
But — there will always be that but — even as he talked so convincingly, what he simultaneously did on the ground contradicted his rhetoric. Mugabe died in a Singaporean hospital. Miles and miles away from home. He had consistently vowed that he would die at home. Even as he was under military siege in late 2017 as the coup unfolded, he dared his captors to kill him because he would never run away from home. But he didn’t die in a Zimbabwean hospital. Not a South African one, Not an African one.
He strove to build hospitals for the poor in his early years of rule. He ensured a good education for Zimbabweans during that time too. And Zimbabwean doctors are highly regarded in many parts of the world. But as he did that, he forgot one thing. To bring national pride to his endeavours. To bring meaning to his rhetoric on patriotism.
That’s the reason he passed away as a medical refugee. And this is a common contradiction among African leaders who would rather send their children abroad for their education, build mansions in foreign lands and keep their money in foreign bank accounts.
Mugabe always preached harmony and peaceful co-existence. Here and in the rest of the continent.
He always called for a united Africa. That was noble talk. But, back at home, things have been different. He was intolerant to criticism. Brother was set against brother, father against son and mother against daughter as the opposition became stronger. He boasted that he had degrees in violence and celebrated the brutal persecution of his critics. He always claimed that the people were behind him but didn’t honour their dissenting choices during election time.
As Marc Antony says in Julius Caesar, “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar” and, as we bury Mugabe, let’s not just praise him, but also avoid interring our honest memories with the bones.
Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT) and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org