Remembering The Late Fearless President Robert Mugabe

Former long-serving Zimbabwe President, the late Robert Mugabe, was one of the fearless Heads of State who did not mince his words and liked straight talk, especially to those who continue their dominance over Africa and its resources.

The fight against colonial rule invariably becomes the founding narrative of a new nation: It was so in the United States, and even more so in developing nations that achieved independence after World War II. Mao Zedong’s huge portrait still gazes down on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where the movement against the chairman’s authoritarian legacy was so brutally crushed, and Fidel Castro is still revered across much of Latin America, though he drove Cuba into economic ruin and more than a million countrymen into exile.

Some African nations have been especially loath to strip the halos off revolutionary heroes, given the instability of countries shaped more by the imperial designs of European rulers than by ethnic boundaries. Honorifics like “comrade” still echo the romance of revolutionary Pan-African ideologies. As late as 2015, with Zimbabwe already in ruins and Mr. Mugabe unwelcome in much of the world, the African Union appointed him chairman for the year.

Yet the same zeal, tenacity, loyalty and ruthlessness required to wage a struggle against a colonial power become handicaps in trying to lead a country. Nelson Mandela in South Africa is among the few revolutionaries who made a smooth transition. And Mr. Mugabe, partly by virtue of his longevity, must rank among the most spectacular failures, driving a rich, well-educated and promising country to the point where the central bank was printing 100-trillion-dollar bills — that’s $100,000,000,000,000 — that barely covered a bus fare.

Mr. Mugabe was sufficiently different from the caricature of the revolutionary dictator in other ways to ensure that historians will study him closely. He was a revolutionary who didn’t wear camouflage fatigues; a ruthless and murderous dictator who spent evenings in his earlier years in the State House curled up with his wife and a Graham Greene novel; an ascetic loner with a passion for learning and an insatiable hunger for power.

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But the bottom line will have to be that however much he achieved in his 95 years, he destroyed far more.

Although he was allowed to see out his days in peace in his Harare mansion, it was not the end he wanted, having famously boasted: “Only God, who appointed me, will remove me.”

Many Zimbabweans trace the reversal of his – and their – fortunes to his 1996 wedding to his secretary Grace Marufu, 41 years his junior, following the death of his widely respected first wife, Sally, in 1992.

“He changed the moment Sally died, when he married a young gold-digger,” according to Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean newspaper, who used to be close personal friends with Mr Mugabe.

While he was sometimes portrayed as a madman, this was far from the truth. He was extremely intelligent and those who underestimated him usually discovered this to their cost.

Stephen Chan, a professor at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, noted Mr Mugabe had repeatedly embarrassed the West with his “adroit diplomacy

“Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen” – undated

“Let the MDC and its leadership be warned that those who play with fire will not only be burnt, but consumed by that fire” – 2003 election rally

“We are not hungry… Why foist this food upon us? We don’t want to be choked. We have enough” – interview with Sky TV in 2004, amid widespread food shortages

As a former political rival of Mr Mugabe, who went on to serve as his home affairs minister, Dumiso Dabengwa witnessed the different sides of Zimbabwe’s founding father.

“Under normal circumstances, he would be very charming but when he got angry, he was something else – if you crossed him, he could certainly be ruthless,” he told the BBC before his death in May 2019.

Mr Dabengwa said the president would often let him win an argument over policy during the decade they worked together, or they would agree to compromise – not the behaviour of a dictator.

But something, he added, changed after 2000 and Mr Mugabe resorted to threats to ensure he got his way.

“He held compromising material over several of his colleagues and they knew they would face criminal charges if they opposed him.”

This is not a picture recognised by Chen Chimutengwende, who worked alongside Mr Mugabe in both the Zanu-PF party and government for 30 years.

“In all the time I have worked with him, I have never seen him be vindictive or ill-treat anyone,” he said.

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