Robert Mugabe Resigns: Zimbabwe celebrates despite missed opportunities

So, it’s finally happened. At the age of 93, almost four decades after taking power, the geriatric and despotic President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe has resigned.

Mugabe’s resignation has prompted wild celebrations on the streets of Harare

He had little choice. Facing impeachment for allowing his wife Grace to ‘usurp’ control as his body failed him, the country in the midst of an uneasy military takeover following the sacking of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the writing was on the wall for the Zanu-PF strongman.

I mused in these pages back in 2014 about whether the military would stand for a Grace Mugabe succession, shortly after her ascent to the leadership of the Zanu-PF Women’s League had indicated that this was what her husband desired. 

Robert and Grace Mugabe in garish Zanu-PF attire

Despite overseeing the precipitous decline of what had been one of sub-Saharan Africa’s strongest economies – his opponents and critics silenced by methods ranging from coercion to violence – Robert Mugabe retained a degree of reverence from the population.

For many Zimbabweans, he remains the father of the nation. After all, it was he who was at the forefront of the revolutionary struggle against the Ian Smith government of Rhodesia, a white minority regime on a par with Apartheid South Africa.

Viciously staving off fellow militant challengers on the fall of the Smith government, Mugabe took the presidency and, with it, the affection of millions. His failure to successfully mutate from a freedom fighter to an effective political leader was offset by the gratitude so many ordinary people felt towards him.

Mugabe with Joshua Nkomo whose Zimbabwean African People’s Union (ZAPU) played a big part in the struggle for freedom only to be engulfed by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF post-independence

When times grew tougher and the economy stagnated, Mugabe took an approach followed by so many post-colonial leaders; he blamed it on the imperialists. Openly ordering the seizure of white-owned farms – which had for years ensured a thriving commercial agricultural sector – by poor black citizens, Mugabe unleashed bloodshed that overnight increased his detractors tenfold. 

With a critical sector of the economy suddenly bereft of expertise, and many ordinary black citizens inclined to seize more of what was not theirs on the behest of their master, Zimbabwe collapsed into hyperinflation. 

Many Zimbabweans became destitute millionaires

That Mugabe survived for so long is testament to the loyalty many people perceived to owe him, not to mention a fragmented opposition undermined by corruption and Zanu-PF scare tactics.

Tonight people party on the streets of Harare and MPs cheer, dance and share passionate hugs on the news of their longtime ruler’s exit. To think, as he mounted the podium of the defeated Rhodesia, Mugabe could have been forgiven for thinking that he was about to usher in a new Kingdom of Zimbabwe.

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe – the Kingdom’s astonishing stone capital – from which Mugabe’s nation took its name

Unlike his medieval Iron Age predecessors – who opened their borders to a prosperous trade with foreigners, oversaw a flourishing of culture and architecture, and created a stable dynasty – Mugabe fostered an often brutal kleptocracy more in keeping with recent African rulers.

His more positive contributions – particularly his encouragement of a sophisticated African education system that has seen Zimbabwe achieve high literacy rates – have been crushed under the weight of his many indiscretions. Trying to orchestrate a power transfer to his 52-year old wife was not going to wash with the burgeoning generation of politically aware Zimbabweans who were born after the revolutionary war.

It is these youngsters that the new government – likely to be led by Mnangagwa – need to engage with. They need to be given a better stake in Zimbabwean society and the economy, just as the few remaining whites do.

Mnangagwa is another former revolutionary who was Mugabe’s Minister of State Security in the 1980s at a time when his rivals were being massacred

Tonight Zimbabwe celebrates but in the days to come some may begin to mourn. They will mourn a missed opportunity, a failure to build on a strong foundation to create a truly prosperous, multicultural African state. Such a dream may still be possible but the transition must start immediately and it must start with intent.

Great revolutionaries seldom make great leaders. Unfortunately, Robert Mugabe lived up to this adage to the detriment of his own people.

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America to Cut UXO Aid to Cambodia: an explosive legacy forgotten

Reports from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) suggest that the US government will cut its $2.5m a year funding to help rid the Southeast Asian country of the scourge of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).

A Mines Advisory Group worker lays out his daily find in Cambodia

It is estimated that the US dropped more than 2 million bombs on Cambodia between 1963 and 1975, largely as part of efforts to flush out Vietcong insurgents and destroy both their training camps and logistical supply corridors.

The Richard Nixon administration intensified what had been a more subtle bombing campaign in 1969 when ‘Operation Menu’ was launched. This began the process of B-52 aircraft carpet bombing vast swathes of eastern Cambodia in a bid to wipe out Vietcong bases. It was followed by ‘Operation Freedom Deal’, which had an expanded remit focused on halting the advance of the Khmer Rouge communist rebels.

Simultaneously, the Americans carried out a strategic air warfare campaign in neighbouring Laos, which also faced its own communist insurgency in what became a bloody civil war. The (il)legality of this bombing rampage caused controversy at the time in America, although its scale was largely covered up until Bill Clinton released classified documents relating to it in 2000.

It is difficult to know how many civilian casualties were caused by America’s bombing of Indochina at the time. What is certain, is that the legacy of UXO in the region (much of it American) provides a constant menace to the civilian population.

A victim of the UXO legacy in Laos

Coupled with an horrendous land mine problem – remnants of the civil wars fought throughout the region – large tracts of land remain contaminated. That these are generally poor countries whose people require access to farmland only exacerbates the problem, and increases the risk of deaths.

As the rap rockers The Transplants succinctly put it:

Well, drop more, two million tons,
Ho Chi Minh’s trail was sprayed with bombs,
Jungles of Laos, knew all along,
That the American war would finally come,
America, land of the free,
Purveyour and leaders of democracy,
Debauchery, luxury,
Bacchanalia’s alright to be.

This is a rare reference in popular culture.

Whilst this particular stain on America’s recent history hasn’t been completely forgotten at home, it is, understandably, overshadowed by the more personal tragedy of the Vietnam War. As such, the funding and expertise offered by the US government to help mitigate the risk of UXO in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam is not only a rightful penance but also helps retain a vestige of memory amongst those Americans involved in the clean-up effort.

The number of UXO-related incidents across Cambodia remains staggering

Strong support from NGOs and UN-funded organisations will continue to play a crucial role in freeing up hectares of fertile land from the explosive remnants of war. But the withdrawal of US funding in Cambodia is as much a symbolic defeat as it is an economic one.

UXO is not an issue that has been resolved; rather it is being gradually resolved in a country whose suffering extended long after the US intervention, as the dystopian vision of the Khmer Rouge resulted in genocide.

Cluster munitions, chemical weapons, herbicidal agents; all of these continue to blight a landscape increasingly admired by adventurous tourists of the West. Along with land mines and air-dropped bombs they have combined to create a toxic burden that will be forcibly carried by generations for decades to come.

The Agent Orange defoliant – designed to remove tree cover and reveal the Vietcong but also a vicious herbicide – is sprayed during the Vietnam War

Most worryingly, this is just one small part of the Donald Trump administration’s foreign aid cut, and the implications could be massive. It begs the question of what is next. Why should the American government turn its back on the catastrophes it helped conceive, and condemn to struggle those born into less fortuitous circumstances than its own members?

Hardly befitting of the land of the free, nor the purveyor and leaders of democracy.