Former Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe passed away in a Singapore hospital on Friday 6 September. A state funeral was held for him at a near-empty stadium in Harare last Saturday. Dozens of leaders were in attendance, including Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo who led the Nigerian delegation. According to plans, his remains will be interred in a month’s time when preparations would have been finalised for his official mausoleum at Heroes’ Acre in the heart of the capital.
Eulogies have come from far and awide. A statement from our own Aso Villa described Mugabe as a warrior “who fought for the independence of the country from colonial rule, and lived most of his life in public service”. President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, who was booed on the arena until forced to apologise for the xenophobic killings in his country, described the late Zimbabwean leader as “a liberation fighter and champion of Africa’s cause against colonialism”, notes that “Many Zimbabweans paid with their lives so that we could be free. We will never forget or dishonour this sacrifice and solidarity”. Namibian President Hage Geingob described him as a selfless leader whose who sacrificed so much for the liberation of our continent, noting that “The loss of the people of Zimbabwe is Africa’s loss”. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta described him as “a freedom fighter and a Pan-Africanist who …. was never afraid to fight for what he believed in even when it was not popular”. Tanzanian leader John Magufuli lamented that “Africa has lost one of its bravest and Pan-Africanist leaders, who led by example in opposing colonialism”.
A statement from the Foreign Ministry in Beijing descried Mugabe as “an outstanding national liberation movement leader and politician (who) firmly defended the sovereignty of his country, opposed foreign interference, and actively promoted…China-Africa friendship and cooperation”. And from Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that Russians will remember him “as a consistent advocate of developing friendly relations between our countries and a person who had accomplished a great deal to strengthen mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation”. A spokeswoman for the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, predictably sent a more mixed tone: “We of course express our condolences to those who mourn but know that for many he was a barrier to a better future. Under his rule the people of Zimbabwe suffered greatly as he impoverished their country and sanctioned the use of violence against them”.
He had been a fixture in his country’s politics for 37 years. Shy and almost effeminate, his outer demeanour belied the man of steel — an African despot who spoke English with the polish of an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat. A grandfather who doted on children; he could be witheringly cold and severe. An austere teetotaller, he had vast business interests; with castles in Scotland and mansions in South Africa, Malaysia, Dubai and Hong Kong. His birthday banquets included endless courses of elephant, buffalo, antelope, impala and a lion. An avowed Catholic, he thought nothing of taking another man’s wife.
I once sat behind him at an international summit in Malabo. I remember the old man who sat glumly like a statue. But when it was his turn to speak his eloquence was electrifying. Mugabe was the most erudite statesman I had the honour of listening to, barring former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Alfred Kissinger.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on 21 February 1924, at Kutama catholic mission in Mashona land. His grandfather reputedly served in the court of the great Ndebele monarch King Lobengula. His father Gabriel Mugabe Matibili walked out on the family for another woman in Bulawayo. His elder brother passed away, and soon thereafter, his younger brother also. Those tragedies cast a shadow over his childhood. He attended St. Xavier’s College Kutama, founded in 1914 by the Jesuits. Its motto is rather very telling: “Esse Quam Videri” (To be rather than to seem to be). Schoolmates remember him as academically outstanding, but reclusive. He was mentored by the local Irish priest, Father Jerome O’Hea, who describes him as a “fine heart and a fine mind”.
In 1949 he won a scholarship to Fort Hare University College in South Africa, at the time the Oxford and Harvard of the emerging black elites of East and Southern Africa. There he met future anti-Apartheid leaders such as Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Joe Matthews and Duma Nokwe. Oliver Tambo and the legendary Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela would have graduated a decade earlier. He himself left the institution with an honours degree in History and English in 1952.
Returning home to Northern Rhodesia, he taught in local schools before moving up north to Lusaka in what was then Northern Rhodesia; he subsequently immigrated to Ghana, which, under Kwame Nkrumah, had become the hotbed of pan-African nationalism on the continent. While working at St. Mary’s Teacher Training College Takoradi, he met Sarah Francesca “Sally” Hayfron who became his wife. Sally was a bright and vivacious young woman who shared his radical politics. They had a son, Michael Nhamodzenyika, who died in 1974.
In 1960 he returned to Salisbury (now Harare) to cast his lot with his people. It earned him a long prison sentence, from 1964 to 1974. During those painful years he taught literacy, English and mathematics to inmates. He also read voraciously; earning degrees in law, economics and public administration as an external student of the University of London. In 1974 he crossed the border into Mozambique, where he joined ZANU. His charisma and eloquence made him a natural leader, especially following the untimely death of Bernard Chitepo in 1975. Driven to exhaustion by the bush war, in 1979 Ian Smith and the racist minority regime agreed to the Lancaster House talks under British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington.
Robert Mugabe won the elections as Prime Minister on 18 April, 1980. It was a time of great optimism and hope. During the first decade of independence Zimbabweans were relatively prosperous. Mugabe was the undoubted star on the Southern African firmament. But things soon went awry. Tensions with archrival Joshua Nkomo and his ZAPU led to the horrendous Gukurahundi military campaigns in Matabele land. More than 20,000 perished. It has been said that Mugabe was slow to raise the Land Question because he did not wish to jeopardise the prospects for majority rule in neighbouring South Africa. After the country achieved majority rule in 1994 he felt more emboldened to demand that Britain pay up for land reforms as agreed in the Lancaster House settlement. British intransigence gave him a free hand to do what had to be done.
Forcible land seizure of white farmlands without compensation angered Western powers, who soon imposed crushing sanctions. The British took back their honorary knighthood. The economy collapsed precipitately. Hyperinflation skyrocketed to a record-breaking 132,000,000% in 2008. The one-trillion dollar Zimbabwe bill remains a collector’s item to this day. It seems plausible, as has been alleged, that some foreign powers waged a secret currency war by flooding the country with fake Zimbabwe dollars so as to destroy the country. In response, Mugabe ordered the Reserve Bank to unilaterally adopt the U.S. greenback as a national currency. It was a smart move, because the Americans were pushed into a game-theoretic position where they could not produce their own fake legal tender currency. The problem was the dire shortage of small change. The adoption of the South African Rand as an ancillary currency was a welcome respite from those constraints. Unemployment rose to 80%, even as HIV/AIDs and poverty brought the country to its knees. Some 4 million – a quarter of the entire population – fled abroad.