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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From the ACS in Liberia to Trump in the White House: America’s Engagement with Africa and why it Must Persist

In 1821, the American Colonization Society (ACS) founded a settlement at Cape Mesurado on the West African coast, with the express intention of populating it with free-born black slaves from the USA.

Established in 1816 by a group of politicians and other notable citizens, the ACS was unique in American history in that it drew support from both pro-slavery and abolitionist proponents. Several of the organisation’s founders were Quakers vehemently opposed to slavery, who believed that their black brethren would stand a better chance of prospering within a ‘free’ African society. For many slave owners, meanwhile, an African exodus of many potentially troublesome and agitating blacks could reduce the risk of slave rebellion.

Henry Clay: ACS founder and 1824 Presidential candidate, who held conflicting views on slaves. He would also state: ‘The God of Nature, by the differences of color and physical constitution, has decreed against it’.

Not only was the make-up of the ACS unique, but so was its core aim; directly engaging with Africa. Whilst American plantation owners had indirectly benefited from the Atlantic slave trade for over a century, neither they nor their political representatives – often one and the same – had taken any interest in the African continent itself. 1821 therefore stands as a seminal moment in US-African relations.

In 1822, a Methodist minister named Jehudi Ashmun became the first governor of the new colony which would soon be renamed Liberia. By the middle of the 19th century, more than 13,000 black Americans had emigrated to West Africa with the assistance of the ACS, determined to embrace this new land of liberty and freedom.

1839 map of Liberia…with some familiar names

Liberia’s first non-white governor Joseph Jenkins Roberts – born in Norfolk, Virginia – declared independence in 1847, creating Africa’s first republic. Ironically, given the origin of the majority of its settlers, Liberia drafted a constitution in line with that of the USA.

Liberia’s first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts

Therefore a project both noble and opportunistic in nature signalled the start of American engagement with Africa. Indeed, the so-called Americo-Liberians would remain in control of the ACS-inspired state until a 1980 military coup led by indigenous Army sergeant Samuel Doe ushered in two decades of bloody repression and civil war, culminating in the barbaric leadership of Charles Taylor.

As with the more gluttonous European colonies in Africa, the influx of outsiders unbalanced a delicate tribal framework that would lead to trouble. At least in the case of Liberia, succour was provided to thousands of black families that would otherwise have been subjected to decades of discrimination and persecution in the land of their birth.

Nevertheless, the adverse affects of early American policy in Africa can be further demonstrated by the recognition granted by the Chestur A Arthur administration to Belgian King Leopold’s ‘philanthropic’ Congo Free State. As history shows, this became one of the most brutal and exploitative states in history, a fact ultimately revealed by another American, George Washington Williams.

The victims of King Leopold’s Congo Free State

The 20th century saw engagement intensify as the geopolitical map of the world became increasingly condensed by the onset of modernity. Cold War intrigues would undermine the American image in Africa, the CIA-directed murder of democratically-elected Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba one of the nadirs of post-WWII US politics. 

In recent decades, however, the US role in Africa has become increasingly constructive and supportive. Development aid has helped drag millions from poverty, created job opportunities aplenty and led to a wholesale improvement of regional infrastructure. Meanwhile, American military expertise and technology have been used to combat extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram which, though they remain undefeated, have been constrained in recent years. American training provided to African Union missions and joint exercises with national militaries have further developed the security apparatus of many states.

A U.S. soldier trains a Chadian soldier in a mock ambush during Flintlock 2015, an American-led military exercise, in Mao

This positive trend may soon end. Though the Obama administration failed to live up to weighty expectations  – prompted in large party by the President’s Kenyan heritage – American financial and technical commitments to African remained undiluted.

Now, President Trump desires to slash the aid budget to Africa. Not only will this jeopardise the lives of the millions already battling impoverishment but it will undermine the President’s core foreign policy goal of combating global terrorism. It is a well proven discourse that poverty, and a lack of opportunity to escape it, drives young men (and some women) into the arms of terrorist groups. Reducing military support for the continent will only further degrade the capability to fight the urelenting extremist groups that wreak chaos and misery.

Al-Shabaab continues to make Somalia a war zone

And what of unpredictable crises such as the Ebola outbreak or the droughts that spread devastating famine? Will these now be considered irrelevant to the American national interest?

As America threatens to withdraw, China is eagerly bolstering its African footprint, securing wide-ranging economic, energy and military deals with desperately poor countries in need of investment and, crucially, strategic partners in their bid to improve the lives of their citizens.

Almost 200 years after the establishment of Liberia, American engagement with Africa is at a critical juncture. Unencumbered by the contentious colonial histories of the European powers, Africa is a continent America should look to exert its influence over for mutual benefits.

Withdrawing development aid and military assistance is not going to achieve this and it is hoped that US legislators will not allow it to happen.

The Trump administration, however, seems to have made clear the importance Africa commands in its horribly narrow worldview. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s refusal to honour a meeting with the Chairperson of the African Union Commission smacks of the arrogance and short-sightedness of the most repressive colonial regimes of a century ago.

Sadly, it looks like Africa must continue to suffer.