By ABBA MAHMOOD
Robert Gabriel Mugabe, former president of Zimbabwe, died at Gleneagles Hospital in Singapore on September 6, 2019, at the age of 95, nearly two years after he was toppled from power. He belonged to the generation of African leaders who fought for independence and was one of the longest-lived, best known and most educated leaders Africa had ever known. In many ways, his demise marked the end of an era. Mugabe will be remembered for many things one of which is his sharp intellect, wits and humour.
Born in 1924 in Kutama village in what was then known as Southern Rhodesia, Mugabe attended Kutama College and Fort Hare University, after which he worked as a teacher in his home country, and in Ghana where he married his first wife Sally. He soon became politically conscious and started taking active part in the movement for the liberation of Africa, calling for his country’s independence from the white settlers’ regime that declared Unilateral Declaration of Independence, UDI, in 1965. In 1964, Mugabe was arrested and imprisoned. Upon his release in 1974, he fled to Mozambique where he became the leader of Zimbabwe Africa National Union (ZANU) whose military wing, Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), fought a relentless war against Mr. Ian Smith’s white-settler UDI regime from bases in Mozambique.
The British government convened talks at Lancaster House in London to end the Zimbabwean stalemate in 1979. Mugabe’s ZANU and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe Africa People Union (ZAPU) formed the Patriotic Front, PF. An agreement was signed that ended the war, disbanded the settler regime and set up a British transitional administration that organized elections, which Mugabe’s ZANU-PF convincingly won. In April 1980, Mugabe was sworn in as the first black prime minister of Zimbabwe. The whole of Africa was ecstatic. Legendary reggae superstar Bob Marley even sang a song, “Zimbabwe”, to commemorate the event. He was prime minister from 1980 to 1987.
Following a constitutional amendment, Mugabe became president from 1987 until he was toppled in 2017. Mugabe quickly became a foremost African statesman. But he had always wanted a one-party state which made him part ways with his ZAPU-PF partners resulting in his government launching a brutal crackdown on ZAPU members, especially in the southern Matabeleland Province.
In1980, Mugabe inherited a country with perhaps the best commercial agriculture in Africa and one of the most vibrant industrial sectors. But the best land was in the hands of the white settlers, a source of disappointment for the liberation fighters who fought for independence. After all, what is independence if those liberated do not own and control their land? Trouble started in 1987 after the transitional provision in the 1979 constitution expired and Mugabe’s government reopened the issue of land redistribution.
The British government initially gave the money for paying compensation to white settlers whose farms were acquired for redistribution to landless peasants. After the first round of the exercise, however, the British government complained that the farms went to ZANU-PF leaders, and it stopped giving more money. Mugabe wanted to continue the redistribution but he was prevailed upon by other African leaders to slow down so that the South African liberation efforts will not be jeopardized. He agreed and waited until the apartheid regime in South Africa finally gave way, after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and his election as the first black president of South Africa in 1994.
Mugabe then pressed on with the programme even though the international community that earlier promised to pay the compensation had stopped doing so. Soon, tens of thousands of war veterans occupied white-owned farms. These protests ruined the country’s commercial farming and soon led to other problems. Although Mugabe was regarded as a great icon in Africa, the Western leaders, who never liked him in the first place, seized on the economic and political turmoil and soon made his country a pariah nation, imposing crippling sanctions.
A former unionist, Morgan Tsvangirai, became an opposition leader, forming his party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and got the support and funding from the West to challenge Mugabe. Economic woes and social unrest as a result of the sanctions imposed on the Mugabe regime emboldened the internal opposition. Mugabe responded with a heavy hand. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002 over accusation of human rights abuses and economic mismanagement. During the meeting of the Heads of Government Conference a year later, Mugabe quit the Commonwealth.
In 2017, due to very advanced age, Mugabe made the tactical political blunder of trying to sack his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and possibly position his wife Grace to succeed him as president. Military chiefs then moved in, removed Mugabe in a quasi-coup, and Mnangagwa ended up as the president.
Despite some of these avoidable mistakes Robert Mugabe’s place is secure in the annals of Africa’s greatest nationalists and freedom fighters. He will also be remembered for his witty quotes and very loaded speeches. He had seven degrees and was one of the most educated leaders of Africa. He was courageous as a fighter and very patriotic as a leader. Below are some of his quotes. May his gentle soul rest in peace. Amen.
— “When they move from Europe to Africa = voyages of discovery; when we move from Africa to Europe = illegal immigrants. A group of Africans in Europe = refugees; a group of Europeans in Africa = tourists. A group of Africans in the bush = poachers; a group of Europeans in the bush = hunters. Black people working in a foreign country = foreigners; white people working in a foreign country = expatriates. The world has failed Africa.”
— “Racism will never end as long as white cars are still using black tyres. Racism will never end if people still use black to symbolize bad luck and white for peace. Racism will never end if people still wear white clothes to weddings and black clothes to funerals. Racism will never end as long as those who don’t pay their bills are blacklisted not whitelisted. Even when playing snooker, you haven’t won until you’ve sunk the black ball and the white ball must remain on the table. But I don’t care, as long as I am still using white toilet paper to wipe my black butt, I am fine.”
— “How do you convince the upcoming generation that education is the key to success when we are surrounded by poor graduates and rich criminals?”
— “It’s a man’s responsibility to feed the wife because the last time a woman fed the man we all got chased out of the garden of Eden.”
— “Africans have no time to rest; even after dying they have to work as ancestors…”
Adieu Baba Mugabe!
History is on the side of the oppressed.