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Mugabe’s 4 decades rule: from triumph to tragedy

Robert Mugabe, who first came to power in Zimbabwe in 1980, is a man of many faces: idealistic young Marxist-Leninist, political prisoner, freedom fighter, lauded icon of pan-African nationalism, would-be reformer, and ruthless, ageing dictator steeped in corruption and sleaze. However, for his many critics in Zimbabwe and in the west, who blame him for the economic chaos and political repression of recent years, Mugabe is a one-dimensional study. His is the face of failure, and for them he is the lord of misrule.

The truth is not quite so black and white. Mugabe’s ascendancy after Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain was not a foregone conclusion. Joshua Nkomo, leader of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), strongly challenged the dominance of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu). Both men boasted impeccable revolutionary credentials, but they were very different.


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Nkomo typified the African “big man” leader – expansive, volatile and charismatic. The sleek, willowy Mugabe was more of an intellectual – cunning, calculating and vain. During the bush war against Ian Smith’s illegal Rhodesian regime, Mugabe was backed by China, Nkomo by the Soviet Union. A more fateful division was tribal: Nkomo was an Ndebele, from Matabeleland, historical enemies of Mugabe’s majority Shona. Had Nkomo prevailed, Zimbabwe’s history might have been very different. But at the 1979 Lancaster House talks in London, Mugabe emerged as the more politically astute of the two. He was invited by Lord Carrington, Britain’s foreign secretary, in effect to play the role of pro-western, Westminster-style democratic leader, and for a while he did so.

Robert Mugabe signs the Lancaster House peace agreement in 1979, which allowed for the creation and recognition of Zimbabwe.
 Robert Mugabe signs the Lancaster House peace agreement in 1979, which allowed for the creation and recognition of Zimbabwe. Photograph: ANL/REX/Shutterstock

When Mugabe became Zimbabwe’s first post-independence prime minister 37 years ago, he followed a conventional programme of social and economic reforms, backed by British and US financial aid. Out-manoeuvred, Nkomo became a minister in Mugabe’s first government. But the two were fated to fight. In 1982, Nkomo fled the country after Mugabe denounced him as a “cobra in the house” and accused him of plotting a coup. For the first time since taking power, Mugabe showed his ruthless face to the world, launching a reign of terror in Matabeleland. An estimated 20,000 people, mostly Ndebele, were killed by his notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade.

Mugabe cemented his grip on power and in 1987 became executive president, combining the roles of head of state, head of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. A unity accord was signed with Nkomo, who returned as a figurehead vice-president. The merger created a new entity, Zanu-PF, and moved Zimbabwe closer to being a de facto one-party state. Newly empowered but still frustrated by the slow pace of change, Mugabe increasingly reverted to his earlier neo-Marxist outlook. His descent into authoritarianism was gathering pace as he struggled with myriad problems.

The departure of many white Zimbabweans in the early 1980s had a negative impact on agricultural output, Zimbabwe’s economic mainstay. But the most productive farms largely remained in the hands of white farmers. The new country was also rocked by external events. Zimbabwe experienced significant, violent spillover from the anti-apartheid struggle in neighbouring South Africa, which Mugabe supported. In 1990 he lost a key backer when the Soviet Union imploded. His back to the wall, Mugabe continued to try to manage the economy along free market lines while maintaining his socialist credo. In 1991 he accepted an onerous intervention by the International Monetary Fund. But planned privatisations failed to materialise.

Meanwhile, Mugabe’s efforts to advance land reform, including the expropriation of white farms at fixed prices, met a storm of opposition, not least from the US and Britain, which gradually cut support. By 2000, isolated and ostracised, he abandoned any pretence at consensus or legality, backing forcible land seizures and farm invasions. He claimed the policy furthered social justice. But its main effect was falling economic output, accelerating “white flight”, and consequent food shortages. Mugabe’s dirigiste economic management was matched by gathering intolerance of political dissent. The 2000s saw successive elections in which the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, made significant advances, only to be thwarted by fraud, voter intimidation, media censorship, and detentions of opposition candidates. In a blatant case of electoral theft, Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential election in 2008, only to be forced to drop out due to threats and violence against his supporters. Mugabe blamed his defeat on an Anglo-American conspiracy.

Political repression, chronic poverty, a worthless currency, hyperinflation, collapsing education and healthcare, homelessness and high unemployment have earned Zimbabwe, formerly known as the food basket of southern Africa, a reputation as a basket case of a different type.


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At the same time, Mugabe and the Zanu-PF elite faced rising anger over high-level graft, embezzlement and the extravagant lifestyle of the president’s unpopular second wife, Grace. Given these mounting pressures, it is surprising Mugabe, 93, now under house arrest, has clung on at the top for so long.

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The Australian

In retrospect, his career slowly slid by stages from triumph to tragedy. In 1980, leading the charge for independence, he was the right man in the right place. But like other freedom fighters and African nationalists of his generation, Nelson Mandela excepted, he never mastered the art of pluralist, democratic governance. Mugabe’s reign became a byword for misrule. Power corrupted him. And yet, as his many abject failures demonstrate, he was never quite as powerful as he and others believed.  source/ tisdall

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