Robert Mugabe: The end of an era


Robert Mugabe, the world’s oldest political leader at 93, has resigned as the president of Zimbabwe on 21 November after 37 years of rule. The news was announced at a hotel in Harare where senators had been debating a motion to impeach Mugabe, and came after over a week of military take-over. The debate proved unnecessary, however, after the minister for parliamentary affairs Helto Bonongwe took to the stage to announce Mugabe’s resignation. The audience interrupted into cheers, spreading out into the streets of Harare and elsewhere, citizens dancing and singing at the prospect of a new era for Zimbabwe.

How did Robert Mugabe, a once-knighted figure of liberation and resistance against oppression, transform into a dictator? Once celebrated, Mugabe’s fall has been met with joy and relief by the citizens of Zimbabwe. Clinging to power and refusing to step down over the course of the eight-day crisis, it became apparent to the rest of the world that Mugabe had lost all influence over his party and his people.

Mugabe began his political career in 1960, when Zimbabwe was still white-ruled Rhodesia. He became notorious for his Marxist-Leninist ideology and his fierce opposition to white rule and, after spending ten years in jail for speaking against out white rule, rose to be a powerful figure in the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army. Known was the “thinking man’s guerrilla” because of his seven degrees – three earned in jail – Mugabe presented a refreshing change of pace from the African “big man” political archetype. Instead of large, volatile and charismatic, Mugabe was lean, cunning and calculating.

Mugabe was an instrumental player in the long guerrilla war waged for Rhodesia independence and, in December 1979, signed the Lancaster House agreement in London to formally end white rule in now-Zimbabwe. Other signers of the monumental document were the Rhodesian Prime Minister Abel Muzorewa, former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith, and British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington.

The Lancaster Agreement, despite transferring governmental power to the African Nationalists, failed to address the issue of disproportionate land ownership. At the time of its signing, the white 2% of the population owned 70% of all land in Zimbabwe. Twenty years later, this problem would still persist – the 2% still owned around half of the land – and would push later push Mugabe to force a more brutal land grab and enact some of his most dictatorial policies.

Another signer was leader of the Patriotic Front, Joshua Nkomo. Mugabe and Nkomo had been in opposition during the guerrilla war, Mugabe backed by China and Nkomo by the Soviet Union, and also hailed from rival tribes. Nkomo was an Ndebele, from Matabeleland, and Mugabe was of the majority Shona tribe. However, following the Lancester House agreement, Mugabe garnered more political clout and became Zimbabwe’s first black prime minister in a landslide victory.

Mugabe’s descent into dictatorship began in 1982, after Nkomo had fled Zimbabwe in the wake of Mugabe denouncing Nkomo as a traitor and publicly accusing him of planning a coup. The veil that Mugabe had established in his first years of rule as an economic and social reformist fell away as his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade killed an estimated 20,000 Ndebele in Matabeleland. Subsequently, Mugabe’s power only grew in scope, with his becoming executive president in 1987 – a position that combined the powers of head of state, head of government, and commander-in-chief. Opposition party Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) being absorbed into Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu-PF) meant that Zimbabwe was well on its way to becoming a dictatorial one-party state, and rapidly, Mugabe was abandoning any and all conventions of legality and democracy.

In 2000, Mugabe began a campaign of forcibly seizing land from white farmers, claiming that this was a social justice measure. The land issues that went unresolved by the Lancaster Agreement had only improved by 25%, and because of this, Mugabe forcibly redistributed white-owned land to Zimbabwean war veterans. This only had economically devastating effects. Hyperinflation, political repression, homelessness, high unemployment, and the collapse of the health and education systems had all become characteristic of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe – a country once known as the “food basket” of Southern Africa.

Triumph to tragedy, hero to villain, freedom fighter to ruthless dictator – Robert Mugabe is an unfortunate example of the corrupting influence of power. Avril Chimesa, a 31-year-old woman amidst the throngs of celebrating citizens, has never known a Zimbabwe without Mugabe. “The joy I feel is for my son. This is a new sunrise in Zimbabwe,” she said, expressing the sentiments of so many other Zimbabweans. “He has a new future.”

Ayan Goran