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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Time to go Mr Mugabe; or fall off the perch in disgrace

Zimbabwe is set for another set of controversial elections on 31st July, as President Robert Mugabe used a presidential degree to set the election date, despite opposition from Prime Minister, and his supposed coalition partner, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

It is quite hard for one who has never been to Zimbabwe to describe the parlous state of the country and the degradation of society and economy brought about by Mugabe’s kleptocratic rule.

Zimbabwe was no paradise before Mugabe’s reign. Under its former name of Rhodesia, it was a white-minority ruled state where the majority black population was politically restricted in a manner not completely disimilar to Apartheid South Africa. Whilst not carrying the same menacing racial undertones, the government of Ian Smith (Prime Minister from 1965 to 1979) was aimed at preserving the superiority of the white former British colonists.

Ian Smith signing the unrecognised declaration of Rhodesian independence
Ian Smith signing the unrecognised declaration of Rhodesian independence

That said, Rhodesia was a relatively prosperous nation under Smith. It had a strong agricultural base and, despite international sanctions brought about by Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence from Great Britain, its leading entrepreneurs had significant economic ties with their European homelands and other Commonwealth countries. Like with South Africa, there were always ways around the sanctions imposed by the global community.

The Rhodesian economy was more productive and diverse under white rule
The Rhodesian economy was more productive and diverse under white rule

This relative prosperity naturally had a trickledown affect that somewhat alleviated the destitution and poverty now experienced by many black Zimbabweans. Backed to election by Britain in 1983, Mugabe gradually dismantled any notion of a multiracial society by employing anti-white rhetoric and economic policies before, eventually, sanctioning violent takeovers of white-owned land as part of land reform. In less capable hands, many prime agricultural estates have been laid waste and abandoned.

Massive inflation (running to thousands of percent), chronic unemployment and food and fuel shortages, exacerbated by more effective international sanctions than were employed against Rhodesia, has seen Zimbabwe reduced to a state of underdevelopment more typical of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, Mugabe has failed to seize the initiative in exploiting Zimbabwe’s natural mineral resources. Instead of encouraging foreign and domestic industrial production, he has embarked on a determined policy of nationalisation, whilst preferring to take cuts and kickbacks from unlicensed and uneconomical mining activities.

In a bid to divert attention from his idiotic economic and fiscal mismanagement, Mugabe has increasingly relied upon populist rhetoric, his role in the struggle to end white rule and fearsome press censorship, to maintain power.

Mugabe suggested Nelson Mandela had been "too soft" on the whites in South Africa
Mugabe suggested Nelson Mandela had been “too soft” on the whites in South Africa

Failing that he has shown willingness to back Zanu-PF militias against his political opponents, such as happened against Tsvangirai’s MDC party during the 2008 elections, and has been linked with the assassination of rivals.

Whether Zimbabwe’s black population is satisfied to forgo basic social services and human rights as a stipulation for African rule is unclear. Certainly, Mugabe retains a strong support base amongst the working class.

It remains ironic however, that, as in South Africa, the ending of white minority rule, distasteful as it was, has created the condition whereby black Africans in Zimbabwe live in a state of greater poverty now than ever before. The blind support shown to liberation leaders and a determination to right the wrongs of the past as a matter of principle has proved a toxic combination to state failure in yet another resource-rich African country.