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Robert Mugabe: Exit of the autocrat

The dictator may have one foot out of the door, but Zimbabwe has a long way to go to be liberated

There was a time, four decades ago, when it was said that this new millennium we are in, would belong to Africa. The European colonists were departing, the fetters of history were being loosened, liberation was the watchword, and the future seemed bright. It was a continent of resources, potential, beauty, energy, its darkness to turn to enlightenment.

It was not, and still is not, to be.

From West to East, in liberation movements, in bush brigades, in tribal history and ethnic clashes, illness, famine and massacres, through Cold War intrigue and triggers of AK-47s, greed and creed, decades of hope, and countless millions of lives were lost. And no one exemplifies this epic tragedy more than Robert Mugabe. For everything that Nelson Mandela was, Robert Mugabe is not.

You can tell a lot about a person by the words she or he utters. “I am still the Hitler of the time,” he boasted at the funeral of a cabinet minister in 2003. “This Hitler has but one objective: Justice for his people, sovereignty of his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be Hitler tenfold. Ten times, that is what we stand for.”

Those are words of the man who drank liberally from Zimbabwe’s liberation, whose corruptive single-mindedness destroyed a land of plenty, and turned it into a wasteland of deprivation, depression and deep distress. It is a nation where to buy a loaf of bread required a barrowful of notes virtually worthless by virtue of Mugabe’s nihilism. “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

No, that’s not Mugabe. That’s Nelson Mandela. This is Mugabe: “The only white man you can trust is a dead white man.”

I am of an age when I remember the fall of other tyrants; Nicolae Ceausescu springs to mind, Ferdinand Marcos, Augusto Pinochet too. There is a joy in seeing those cruel men fall, and enlightenment to follow. And while the details are not yet clear of just how power will be transferred, or to who, in Zimbabwe, I do not have a sense of hope. The next man likely to take over is the former vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who went into a short period of exile in South Africa. He is a former head of Mugabe’s intelligence service, knows his way around the giving end of a pliers, and was a trusted and feared member of the regime. It seems as if now he has the backing of the army to continue to rule rather than Mugabe’s 53-year-old wife, Grace. And while I am glad to see Mugabe go, I am still grieved by the loss of potential that must be endured by Zimbabweans all the more.

If Mandela’s autobiography is The Long Walk to Freedom, Mugabe’s would be The Dark Walk to Tyranny. He was born Robert Gabriel Mugabe near the mission settlement of Kutama on February 24, 1924, and was educated at the mission school, then Fort Hare University and correspondence courses with other colleges, including London University. He worked as a journeyman teacher in Southern Rhodesia and neighbouring countries while becoming active in the National Democratic Party in 1960, and then secretary-general of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, Zapu, which was then banned. Like most of Africa’s liberation leaders, he was jailed, but escaped in 1974 to Mozambique to lead the independence movement and guerrilla campaign.

While the former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith had declared independence, his nation was shunned by the United Kingdom. In 1979, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had brokered a peace deal, allowing the Marxist Mugabe to become Zimbabwe’s first PM in 1980. From 1988 onwards, he was president of a nation that he increasing treated as his personal fiefdom, eliminating rivals and imprisoning thousands.

The new government, anxious to attract foreign investment, declared that white farmers were a welcome and integral part of the new Zimbabwe. Then land seizures took place. Plans to redistribute land peacefully were not working and ultimately the wartime “veterans” were sent in to dispossess the white farmers of their land, often violently. In many cases, the fertile land went to wrack and ruin, leading to acute food shortages and a dramatic downturn in Zimbabwe’s economy.

Meanwhile, as Mugabe grew into his 70s he became paranoid. He believed his opponents were trying to kill him. Any voice of dissidence was met with violence and, in the case of an independent newspaper, shut down. Political enemies were accused of indecency, and thrown into jail.

The sanctions imposed on the country at one stage barred Mugabe, his family and supporters from visiting Britain. But despite an European Union travel ban, he was allowed to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II in Rome in 2005. While there, he shook hands with the Prince Charles, who was seated one place away from the president.

Under Mugabe, many humble Zimbabweans became billionaires, but ones on the brink of starvation and unable to pay for fuel because their money was worth so little thanks to stratospheric inflation. In 2008 and 2009, the state’s central bank printed so much of its currency — the Zimbabwe dollar — that the country experienced mind-boggling hyperinflation that reached 500 billion per cent. Inflation was only brought under control when the government abandoned the Zimbabwe currency and used the US dollar as its main medium of trade. Last year, this was replaced with a new currency called bond notes.

In 2008, Mugabe was stripped of his honorary knighthood, awarded in 1994, over his abuse of human rights and “abject disregard” for democracy, the UK Foreign Office said at the time. Queen Elizabeth approved the annulment.

But he was admired by some. In late 2015, he was awarded China’s alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize, the Confucius Peace Prize, for what its committee called his inspired national leadership and service to pan-Africanism.

Mugabe had two sons and one daughter with Grace, while his first marriage produced one son who died.

What also died was the hope too that liberation would bring change. Even now, with Mugabe’s one foot out of the door, that may be hard to come.

— With inputs from the Daily Telegraph.

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