ROBERT MUGABE (1924 – 2019)

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MONDAY EDITORIAL

Former Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, dies at age 95

Founding President of Zimbabwe, Mr Robert Mugabe, ousted from power in 2017 after 37 years, died on Friday at a private hospital in Singapore. He was 95. “His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten,” says the current president of the country, Mr Emmerson Mnangagwa who described his late predecessor and mentor as “an icon of liberation, a Pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people”.

As to be expected, encomiums have been pouring in for the late Mugabe from leaders within the continent and across the world. And so have been some brutal editorials in the media. In life and death, Mugabe remains a controversial figure while his legacy is rather complicated. Tendai Biti, a former finance minister in Zimbabwe, sees in Mugabe “a man who was a coalition of controversies, who failed to transform himself from a liberation leader to a national leader.”

Without absolving the late Mugabe of his grave errors while in power, we should also place on record the fact that both in Zimbabwe and Africa, he was a liberator before he became a dictator. Apart from his undeniable heroism and enormous sacrifice in the anti-colonial struggle, Mugabe’s first decade in power was generally toasted as a good example of governance and economic management. Today, Zimbabwe is one of the most educated countries in Africa with a literacy rate of 89 per cent, according to the World Bank.

Perhaps a more rounded legacy of Mugabe will be better appreciated in the context of the struggle for independence in Zimbabwe. His consciousness was forged in the smithy of the anti-colonial struggle. It was a struggle informed by the ideological polarisation of the Cold War. With that background, Mugabe was ill-equipped to run an open market economy let alone an open multiracial society. His anti-imperialism lasted a life time while his brand of African leadership had its time and place. 

Mugabe started life as a school teacher with seven university degrees. He rose to political prominence by leading a guerrilla war against the white colonial rulers of his country and he was jailed in the process. He went on to become the first post-independent president. And in the early years of his rule, Mugabe expanded social services, including building schools and hospitals and was generally a good leader until he overstayed his welcome. “It is a shame that he is leaving through the back door and that he is forsaken by the parliament,” said Alpha Conde, President of Guinea and chairperson of the African Union (AU), following the military coup that ousted Mugabe in 2017.

As Mugabe, who led his country for 37 years, became more desperate to cling on to power, a regime of mindless violence was also unleashed on those who opposed him. His descent into authoritarianism coincided with a period when Zimbabwe deteriorated economically as western capital turned its back on the country on account of his land reforms.

However, whatever may be said about the last leg of Mugabe’s life and political career, even his most ardent critics have acknowledged his contribution in the field of education in Zimbabwe. That is aside the personal sacrifices in the struggle for the independence of his country. It is therefore tragic that most of what Mugabe is now remembered for are not positive: the violence unleashed against opponents, the desperation to be in power at all costs and the ultimate destruction of a once promising economy.

It is heartening that the current president of Zimbabwe has placed Mugabe in the appropriate context as a national hero, founding father and icon of national independence and democratic resilience.