Robert Mugabe divided opinion when he was alive and that has not changed after his death. Zimbabweans are reflecting on the legacy of the man who was their leader for 37 years.
Mugabe died in hospital in Singapore on 6 September 2019 which marks one year since his departure today, but it is clear that his spirit lives on, particularly among Zimbabweans and the Political world, some are hailing him as a hero; a defender of the dignity of black people, while others say he was a liberator who turned oppressor.
Some Zimbabweans are also reflecting on what could have been had he lived up to this day. Mugabe took over a country showing great promise in 1980 when he became prime minister. To some, he was the main architect and reason behind Zimbabwe’s economic demise but to some, however, nothing will supplant Mugabe’s legacy as a liberator and a fighter against colonial rule and Western governments. At some point he pledged reconciliation with the white minority and tried to develop Zimbabwe’s economy but all his good work floundered as he focussed on a campaign of crushing dissent and doing whatever was needed to remain in power. In many corridors, this stance earned him the tag ‘Dictator’, a term that generally refers to a leader who does things only in his ways, but he was arguably the most eloquent African leader and unsurprisingly the most respected amongst African Presidents. He had a matchless gift of public speaking that won him admirers even from his political opponents. Like what one Journalist Marshall Bwanya once wrote, ‘Mugabe was a multi-faceted individual that could not be dissected at face value.’
No individual can disqualify his contribution to the liberation of Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole but on the other hand no one can nullify his tyranny during his tenure as Zimbabwean leader.
Mugabe was such a polarising figure depending on one’s generation, ethnicity, social class, race, colour, creed and political affiliation.
What Mugabe meant to a Zimbabwean in Mbare (Harare), Makokoba (Bulawayo), Bindura, Borrowdale (Harare), Hilbrow (Johannesburg, South Africa), diaspora, or you are a farmer, vendor or hustlers, was totally different among these groups.Some remember Mugabe as an outspoken demagogue and orator who defied western imperialism. Charming, fluent, eloquent in all his speeches, a trait and quality he possessed, which most African leaders did not. His speeches and responses were fascinating and always gaining traction in the global world.
I recall one of his interviews, he was asked by a British journalist, “Sir, don’t you think at 89 years would be a great time to retire as President?” Calm and collected as he was, he responded, “Have you ever asked the Queen that question, or is it just for African leaders?”
Since around 1960, which saw the inception of his political career when he was voted as National Democratic Party (NDP) secretary general, Mugabe became a revolutionary icon who played a critical role in the independence of Zimbabwe. When Mugabe left ZAPU in 1963 to join ZANU PF, the late Joshua Nkomo bemoaned the loss of a young vibrant pan africanist that showed much promise and potential.In 1964, Mugabe with other leaders were incarcerated by Ian Smith’s colonial Rhodesian Front government, a sentence he served up to 1975. Upon his release, Mugabe rejoined Zanu PF and was pivotal figure in brokering the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement that paved way for the birth of Zimbabwe and black majority rule.
Arguably his greatest exploit from a black African perspective was the Land Reform Programme although it was violent, chaotic and brutal. Truthfully speaking, Zimbabwe is arguably the only African country where indigenous blacks do not have an inferiority complex because of the complexion of their colour, thanks to Mugabe. That is how black farmers, and pan africanist would perhaps remember Robert Mugabe.He was the only African leader with the guts to tell then British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his face, “Blair keep your England, and let me keep my Zimbabwe” when all other African leaders were whipped into line, passive and docile.
The Robert Mugabe story book can never be complete without mentioning the 1983-1987 Gukurahundi massacres, the unpopular 2005 operation Murambatsvina, the 2008 political violence, and the brutal clampdown on political activists undoubtedly taint the image of Mugabe as a liberator. Twenty thousand majority Ndebeles were killed in the Gukurahundi massacres by the lethal infamous 5th brigade unleashed in Matelebeland and Midlands provinces in the period. In response, he did thinly regret this sin and described it in six words, ‘ Gukurahundi was a moment of madness’ I quote. Until this day, most Ndebele speaking people are still bitter, traumatised, and harbour a grudge over the Gukurahundi massacres.
Operation Murambatsvina displaced many families which lost their property. In 2008, thousands were killed and maimed in a bloody political presidential run-off that later saw then MDC leader the late Morgan Tsvangirai pulling out citing violence and gross human rights violations.
Our current generation inherited this bitterness and animosity. Yes, tribalism in Zimbabwe has always been a problem since time immemorial but it is partly because of Mugabe that the nation is still divided along tribal lines. In his later years, people called him all sorts of names, but now is probably the time when Zimbabweans will think back to his 37 years in power.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa called Mr Mugabe a “champion of Africa’s cause against colonialism” who inspired our own struggle against apartheid”.Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said Mr Mugabe had “played a major role in shaping the interests of the African continent” and was “a man of courage who was never afraid to fight for what he believed in even when it was not popular”. Arguments about Robert Mugabe will continue but the only truth is that he is gone. As he sleeps at his resting place which by the way is also unconfirmed, not all celebrate his legacy, not all mourn his demise in the country.
Liberator or Oppressor? I will leave you to decide.
Rest In Peace Igwe!
By Eric Knight