By - Tobi Idowu
Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe first post-independence leader dies nearly two years after he stepped down, following 37 years in office. For a long time before his unthinkable resignation in November 2017, the moment the name Robert Mugabe popped up on the internet, especially the social media, people, young ones really, would suddenly be curious to what new funny or ludicrous statement the increasingly senile Zimbabwean President had just made. Unfortunately for the 93-year-old leader his eccentricities had grown into some legend that would be exploited in the era of internet-spurred fake news, and all sorts of risible statements would become attributed to him. Mugabe had been many things before his internet punchline (fewer true and mostly false) statements.
He was born on February 21, 1924 in what was then Rhodesia – a British colony, ruled by its white minority of about 270,000; whereas the blacks of about six millions faced a lot of discrimination. In some of the high cases of discrimination against the largely subsistence black farmers, they were forced to leave their ancestral land and pushed into the country’s peripheral regions, with dry soil and low rainfall. However, the most fertile areas were reserved for white farmers. It was not surprising that the young Mugabe would posit reclamation of land as one of his main policy drivers, in fact it was behind the 1970s war which brought him to power.
Described as a young lonely boy, Mugabe would often go to find comfort in reading as he had no father figure to look up to. His father, a carpenter, was reported to have abandoned his family when his son was very young. In her book, Dinner With Mugabe, Heidi Hollande narrated how, at the age of 10, the young boy would do anything to please her mother who had become depressed after his elder son died of malaria. This act would make the young Mugabe to be referred to as a “mummy’s boy” at school.
A teacher influenced by Nkrumah
After Mugabe finished studying in South Africa, he would eventually qualify as a teacher and moved to Ghana in 1958 to work. This was very significant as the West Africa country had just become the first African country south of the Sahara to gain independence from colonial rule. sMugabe got so much influenced by the pan-Africanist speeches of Ghana’s leader Kwame Nkrumah, and encouraged by his Ghanaian wife, Sally, he became determined to achieve the same back home.
Jail Time and Leadership Rise
He returned to Rhodesia 1960, and began a vociferous campaign for an end to discrimination. He was immediately arrested by the government and subsequently jailed; for a decade he was in jail, without trial. He would learn of his son’s death while he was in prison, but would be refused his request to visit his wife in Ghana in order to console her. According to Father Emmanuel Ribeiro, who was Mugabe’s priest during his incarceration, Mugabe was only able to get through his grief “partly through the strength of his spirituality,” but also because his “real strength was study and helping others to learn.” Unsurprisingly, he earned two law degrees from the University of London External programme.
While still in prison in 1973, his supporters elected him the president of the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), the biggest party fighting white rule, and installed him as leader. A year later, he would be released, and thereafter he escaped to Mozambique from which he coordinated the Zanu guerrilla struggle against the Rhodesian government.
Prime minister and then President
After the white minority-led government agreed to the Independence demand of the black nationalists, Mugabe won the first election that would usher in the African-led government. He took oath of office as the prime minister in April, 1980 and thereafter the renaming of the country as Zimbabwe.
In 1987, urged by Mugabe, the Zimbabwe’s parliament amended the constitution, where it declared Mugabe to be executive President, which meant, alongside being the head of government, he was now the head of state and the commander in chief of the armed forces. That act represented a turning point in the political trajectory of the once feted revolutionary who would go on to descend gradually into the undesired pit of autocracy. His later years were marked by violent repression of his political opponents and some shambolic political moves which led to Zimbabwe’s economic ruin.
A teacher who educated his country
One of the enduring legacies of Mugabe remains in education. After coming to power in 1980, Mr Mugabe greatly expanded education and healthcare for black Zimbabweans and the country enjoyed living standards far higher than its neighbours.
In 1995, a World Bank report eulogised Zimbabwe’s rapid progress in the fields of health and literacy. Run by a former teacher, the country had the highest literacy rates in Africa. Hollande would narrate in her book that Mugabe used to personally coach illiterate State House workers to help them pass exams.
Sally’s death, “Gucci Grace” immoderate influence
Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, has been described by various commentators as a hugely successful moderate influence on him, especially in relation to his politics. However, the contrary has been said of his second wife, whom he married after Sally died. In fact many Zimbabweans couldn’t trace the reversal of his – and their – fortunes to his 1996 wedding Grace Marufu, who was 41 years his junior.
“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. Mugabe’s government would become known, not for its brilliant education policy, but for its suppression of opposition voices, the manipulation and rigging of the elections, abuse of human rights and unimaginable corruption.
Mugabe’s 2017 inglorious exit
For a man who had boasted that only God, who appointed him, could oust him from his exalted position as the leader of his country, it must have felt rather demeaning that he would be asked to resign, or shamelessly impeached if he failed to, and be replaced by his erstwhile protégé, he had barely sacked two weeks before.
What he thought would never happen would happen and perhaps leave him a dejected old man for the rest of his life. Manipulated serially by his power-drunk young wife, Mugabe planned to make his wife succeed, till he was checked by his party.
What do Zimbabweans think of Mugabe?
On the streets of Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s death has polarised people, with some highlighting his liberation struggle and strides in education, while others could not forgive him for his autocratic tendencies. His contribution to the liberation struggle and the improvement of access to education across the gender divide is one of his notable achievements for which Sithandazile Dube, a 33-year-old vendor, will remember him. “I am sad, our father has left us. I don’t know what the future of this country will be like without him. He liberated this country and for me, as a woman, I was able to go to school. Today I can stand for myself as a woman because he did a lot to help us get equality with men,” she told Al Jazeera.
In spite of that, the reason he is so resented is captured by another unnamed responder: “We suffered a lot under this man and I’m happy he’s gone. God was late in taking Mugabe, but he has done well by finally taking his life. I can’t say that we’re free now that he’s gone because ZANU-PF is still in power and they are still behaving in the same way, I will be very happy if they [ZANU-PF] could all go the same way,” he said.
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