Death, the inevitable, finally visited the man who over the last couple of decades dominated headlines not just in Africa but also in the West, China, India and even Russia for very many reasons. Little has been heard from the courageous, fearless, sharp and straight shooting tongue of Uncle Bob since the coup of November 2017. Africa lost its last voice in the liberation and emancipation struggle.
The mutiny by the enemy within, that took control of the nation to rapturous celebrations not only across the country but also within western corridors of power as well as human frailty, took its toll.
The expeditious congratulatory messages from many western leaders were not in the least shocking. Alas, the only African leader who said it as it is and told them to the face has been shamefully removed. Within a matter of hours, promises of supporting former Rhodesia to restore its lost glory were dangled in the atmosphere to give Zimbabweans an impression that his exit marked the beginning of their socio-economic liberation. Robert Mugabe, the sole reason for watching the country’s economy to disintegrate under sanctions for nearly two decades had been hanged to dry therefore all celebrated.
In that euphoria after his overthrow, many Zimbabweans cursed their former leader for sitting on their individual and collective progress. Months before his toppling, his wife Grace, who had assumed godly status schemed with the longest lasting icon of the continent’s liberation struggle to inflict pain on many citizens.
Mugabe had been completely blinded by the power he had held on to for nearly four decades. Dissenting voices were crashed with the heaviest of punishments; opponents were brutally tamed and members of his government who opposed his wife’s meteoric rise to political prominence simply risked being exterminated. In fact, that would become the final straw.
Finally, Mugabe was removed by a junta he created, nurtured, resourced and unleashed to visit cruelty on his people. People he vowed to protect and defend. He had become the proverbial cannibal, eating his own kin. But as the famous Ghanaian saying goes, “there is no gain in severing one’s tongue and roasting it as the preferred meat.” The more voices as he clamped down on to protect Grace, the more fearlessly others spoke up knowing what could befall them. The raw terror visited on his people is believed to have eroded all the gains made for the nearly two generations of leadership that even his fiercest critics admit started pretty well and is credited with the high rate of education that make Zimbabweans the most educated African population.
Uncle Bob’s determination to bequeath to all generations of Zimbabweans a quality education is what I choose to celebrate. Zimbabweans whether in Africa or diaspora demonstrate the essence of education. No wonder many are quick to mention the number of academic laurels awarded the fallen hero. As a Ghanaian, his stint with my country’s education that influenced his interest in same makes him an icon worth celebrating. At the time of his surrender, even citizens who celebrated his removal praised the education he gave them.
Mugabe knew that by educating his people, he was arming them with gifts he himself could not deprive them of in future. But he did not quibble with it. He rolled out educational opportunities and ensured that majority of his population was enrolled. No wonder when he became a tyrant, the educated in the country took him on, courting his displeasure and sometimes leading to their incarceration.
The question is if Mugabe were a monster would he invest heavily and deliberately to ensure his people’s education? My guess is something had to give! Mugabe, like any leader, was intoxicated by the absoluteness of the power he wielded with the backing of the military. His army of comrades was willing to keep him in power to oil their own wheels. I remember a BBC Focus on Africa interview before the election that culminated in power sharing with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. An information minister said: “there was no one capable of replacing Robert Mugabe in the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF)”. I was dumbfounded but in these parts, where many are willing to sell their mothers in pursuit of political power, maybe one shouldn’t be shocked after all.
Since his death was announced a week ago, many westerners are quick to point to the economic decay of Zimbabwe at the time of Mugabe’s overthrow. The land seizures often find space in their criticisms but hardly any mention of the history of how unfair the original land act of the 1970 was to the indigenes. Again, the impact of economic sanctions on the deterioration of the southern African country’s economy seems lost on these analysts. The truth is no economy under sanctions thrives. Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Libya and Sudan are enough to confirm this theory. Countries placed under sanctions become distressed with their economies the hardest hit. Those able to contain the shocks are oil-rich nations but that is only for a while. Oil-rich Venezuela caved after a while under US (Western) sanctions. In simple terms, nations under this spell are subjected to the sort of scrutiny that prevents foreign direct investment which is critical for economies the world over; therefore discussing the Zimbabwean crisis without regard for these obvious setbacks is plainly disingenuous.
Suggestions that Mugabe was violent during the liberation struggle, coming from white commentators who sought to protect their interest, looked the other way or were just unconcerned observers of the blood spill is ludicrous. They deliberately ignore Ian Smith’s ruthlessness towards black Rhodesians which resulted in the killing of scores of black Zimbabweans. Not only did Smith unilaterally declare independence from Britain but he also rigged the election that put him in charge of Southern Rhodesia with white minority votes over seven times the majority’s share of votes. White votes totaled 89,594 against 12,664 black votes, while the rest of the black population was consulted through tribal and village chiefs who depended on the government for their salaries.
His Land Tenure Act of 1970 also split the country’s land almost equally between 240,000 whites and about 5 million blacks, allocating 44 million acres to whites and 45.2 million acres to blacks. But talk of Mugabe’s land reform has overshadowed this grave injustice to humanity done to the indigenous population before real independence in 1980.
Smith’s cruelty was likened to Hitler’s Nazism by former Prime Minister Garfield Todd (1953 to 1958), who was later detained by Smith under house arrest during the latter’s premiership. His only crime was supporting black rights and involving them in running their heritage. In fact, Smith, then his deputy, ousted PM Winston Field on the accusation that he was unable to secure independence in 1962.
His rise to power is similar to Mnangagwa’s rise to power, except that this time the blacks were running their own affairs. Smith’s viciousness as Zimbabweans relentlessly pursued self-governance took over 27,000 innocent lives. But many white commentators are quick to conveniently blame them on the split between Robert Mugabe and fellow black Zimbabwean in the independence struggle, Joshua Nkomo, who despite their differences, was invited to the post-independence government.
As was evident in many independence struggles, the opposition is never offered an olive branch at the point of freedom, but Mugabe shied away from that before the subsequent fallout. Not only did he run an inclusive regime of blacks, he also invited whites in the country to help rebuild it at independence after the Lancaster House agreement in London paved the way for his triumphant return to his motherland to lead the country. Of course the death of 10,000 to 30,000 Ndebeles in Matabeleland, mainly supporters of Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) is regrettable and must be condemned. Even though we are told that the US-based Genocide Watch classified the Matabeleland bloodbath as genocide, they turned a blind eye due to economic progress at the time. If they meant well, Mugabe should have faced the law for genocide, but it was convenient because he was a trusted ally.
The irony is that the Queen of England after a decade of such gross human rights violations appointed Mugabe as an honorary Knight Grand Crossing the Order of Bath when the latter visited the UK in 1994. This honour was bestowed on Mugabe, knowing fully well that Gukurahundi – the rain that washes away the chaff, before the spring rains – was a government policy against Nkomo’s ethnic group. Cables from Harare to London and other western capitals indicated their government’s deep knowledge of the atrocities. But as usual, they only sought to protect their interests.
One such cable reported noted: Zimbabwe is important to us primarily because of major British and western economic and strategic interests in southern Africa, and Zimbabwe’s pivotal position there. Other important interests are investment (800, million pounds) and trade (120 million pounds export in 1982), Lancaster House prestige, and the need to avoid a mass white exodus. Zimbabwe offers scope to influence the outcome of the agonising South Africa problem; and is a bulwark against Soviet inroads… Zimbabwe’s scale facilitates effective external influence on the outcome of Zimbabwe experiment, despite occasional Zimbabwean perversity.
The content of the cables explains Great Britain’s ‘see no evil’ attitude towards human rights violations in their African colonies. If it does not touch its nerves, it is willing to turn a blind eye regardless of the scale of abuse. No wonder the land reform policy, one that bruised a raw nerve elicited those rapid responses from western governments. The fear that British and western interests in Zimbabwe were threatened could not be fathomed. Taking land from white farmers as Mugabe did, led to massive exodus of whites. The so-called strategic economic interest was threatened therefore; Zimbabwe could be in ruins for all they cared.
Yes, Mugabe became a tyrant long before the land reforms but for as long as he did not tinker with western stakes, he could do as he pleased. One can conveniently say they helped create the monstrosity of Mugabe’s leadership. As they admit that even though they observed this monster hatching, they saw no malice in the brutalities.
Another song parroted by the western allies and their agents is that the Zimbabwean economy was in tatters. Of course it was! How was the economy supposed to survive when the US and the EU were plainly strangling it to death? Though the US sanctions were targeted at 141 individuals and organisations, they were far reaching and stripped the economy to its marrow. They then turned round to present it as Mugabe’s legacy to Zimbabwe. I certainly won’t view Uncle Bob in that light. I have said in times past that freedom fighters are poor managers of economies because they often fail at it. But Mugabe’s first two decades defied that with policies that won many hearts. However, with US/western sanctions breathing down their necks even Lee Kwan Yew could not have saved the Zimbabwean economy.
The economic and trade sanctions imposed under the auspices of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the Zimbabwe Democratic and Economic Recovery Act (Zidera) was destined to choke the southern African country and reduce it to ridicule if the Mugabe regime was unwilling to play ball with the West. They are however criticising the state of Zimbabwe’s economy after sanctions prevented nearly all Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) including African Development Bank (AfDB) from providing any assistance to the once bread basket of southern Africa. Even the AfDB objective to promote sustainable economic development and social progress of regional member countries could not find expression in Zimbabwe’s case due to the growing western influence in the Bank as well as the dictates of the global finance space.
The AfDB failed to mobilise and allocate resources for investment in its regional member country that was in distress, neither did its policy advice and technical assistance put the economy on life support. The Bank Group failed probably because it was afraid of attracting fines or being blacklisted by the same western powers for flouting the sanctions imposed on the country. In a 2007 Country Dialogue Paper on Zimbabwe, the AfDB noted the stress under which the country found itself but still suspended all operations in the member state due to sanctions even with concerns about its inability to clear its arrears.
Other banks took the risk. Barclays was fined for processing $3.4 million in 159 banned transactions through financial institutions in the US for corporate customers from 2008 to 2013. Zimbabwe’s Central Bank was also fined $385 million for transactions on behalf of ZB Bank, which was under sanctions. It therefore became risky to transact business with Zimbabwe and the over 141 individuals and corporate bodies affected by the sanctions. But it was the people who have borne the brunt of killer measures over the years. Nearly two years out of office the US leadership renewed the sanctions early this year.
That said, the continent couldn’t tie itself to western institutions whose primary objective is protecting western hegemony. Evidence of the recent trade war with China indicates that if Africa wants to be respected it must pool together and build institutions that can defy western prescriptions and further its development without exporting raw materials and counting on aid. It must also prevent stolen wealth from leaving the continent to western banks even when the countries are under economic sanctions.
It is an aberration that in the 21st century, African institutions are unable to protect and support member states in times of difficulties. Zimbabwe could have been saved from the downward slope into the abyss it found itself over the last two decades. If the continent’s leadership had been visionary, it would shrug off such sanctions and work together to promote the economic wellbeing of its members rather than beg US and EU to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe. Africa’s population makes it attractive for local industry not when it remains in one country. The continent must take charge of its economies after over half a century of self-rule. Businesses that depend on African raw materials must begin to add value on at least 50% of them within the next decade. That way, we can reverse the negative effects of the current global economic arrangement on the continent and serve our people well.
There is no doubt that Mugabe became a pain in the neck before his removal, however, evidence abounds that a western conspiracy to discredit him played a major role in the free fall of the Zimbabwean economy. Therefore, this attempt to blame Mugabe single-handedly for Zimbabwe’s wreck is untenable. The collective effort by western allies to make their case through draconian measures was what largely destroyed the country’s economy. As for claims that Mugabe was a monster from the start, it is abundantly clear that he learnt from Smith who was willing to eliminate any opposition to his total control of the country.
Those who played it to the disastrous end they yearned, just to prove their point, cannot tell the story of Mugabe and his reign. They were no victors in this sad game of destroying human lives in the name of punishing an individual or a regime for human rights abuses. Of what use is it if this corrective measure hurts the future of an entire nation? Zimbabwe continues to reel over the effects of those actions; let no one rejoice!
Mugabe stood for Africa and that’s what we will remember him for.
Adios, Uncle Bob
Kobby Gomez-Mensah is a Ghanaian journalist with research interest in African democracy, good governance and human rights.