The last surviving major leader of the anti-colonial movements of the twentieth century, Robert Mugabe is a prime example of how so many of those leaders went completely off the rails once they took power. Born in Southern Rhodesia to a poor family in 1924, Mugabe received an education, went to college, and became a teacher. He also became heavily involved in Marxist anti-colonial movements fighting for the independence of his people and the other colonized peoples of the earth. He joined the African National Congress in 1949 while studying in South Africa. Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1960, where anti-colonial movements had sprung up while he was in South Africa. He immediately become involved. Meanwhile, the rise of the newly free nations of Africa led to a white backlash in Southern Rhodesia, as well as South Africa, and the racial terror of that colony grew under Ian Smith’s odious racist leadership. With political meetings banned, Mugabe and his followers moved toward armed resistance. The different anti-colonial factions also started engaging in bloody violence toward each other, a premonition of what would happen under Mugabe’s rule once he became president of free Zimbabwe.
Mugabe was arrested in December 1963 and was sent to prison from 1964 to 1974 after a sedition conviction. He was released after South Africa pressured Smith into taking a more moderate position, worried that the guerilla war in Southern Rhodesia would spread into South Africa if Smith did not back off his hard-line policies. Mugabe left for Mozambique in 1975, trying to take control of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) forces, a deeply divided movement that had several other claimants to leadership. He gained the trust of the guerrilla leaders and established himself as the prime opposition figure to the racist regime. That he controlled the radio broadcasts in Mozambique helped him significantly. He became close to China during these years, as they supported his leadership more than the Soviets, who gave greater support to one of Mugabe’s rivals. During the broadcasts, Mugabe talked about Marxism-Leninism and called himself the heir of Lenin and Castro.
By the late 1970s, even Ian Smith was convinced that white minority rule in Rhodesia could not continue indefinitely. The British held some power in this transition, for the UK had never recognized Smith’s government or Rhodesian independence. So in 1979, Margaret Thatcher said the UK would recognize Rhodesian independence if it transitioned to democracy. Mugabe was not happy with the negotiated settlement, known as the Lancaster House Agreement, because it gave the white minority continued economic and political privileges and did not engage in widespread land redistribution, which was Mugabe’s top priority. He also didn’t really like that this transition would be negotiated instead of a revolutionary victory. Nonetheless, Mugabe won what was now Zimbabwe’s first and very chaotic election that included two assassination attempts on his life and voter intimidation from all sides. Whites were scared of Mugabe’s Marxist rhetoric, even as he toned it down during the campaign. Mugabe became prime minister in 1980.
The problems with Mugabe’s regime began pretty quickly. While there is certainly nothing wrong with tearing down states of Cecil Rhodes and renaming things named after colonists, hiring North Korean architects to build an appropriately over the top socialist monument was perhaps a less than ideal sign. Yet he never really implemented a socialist program. Once he took power, the nation’s budgets were fairly conservative and he did not seek to alienate the American and British governments that were giving what was now called Zimbabwe significant funding. Mugabe also enacted policies that improved the lives of the Zimbabwean people in his first decade. Immunization and literacy rates skyrocketed, for example. But even if there were some improvements on some issues, Mugabe’s family and friends became extremely wealthy while the average Zimbabwean lingered in severe poverty.
Mugabe and his allies also took over all the nation’s media and turned it all into government propaganda organs. Initially, he had white ministers and talked about racial reconciliation, even if for the cynical reason that whites had the nation’s financial resources. But fearing Mugabe and longing nostalgically for their own racist regime, thousands of whites moved to South Africa in the early 1980s. For Mugabe, the apartheid regime became an easy enemy, one who had earned the condemnation of the world, but also one that also allowed Mugabe to take pressure off himself and his own actions by pointing to the evil to the south. With growing violence between agents for the two nations, including the bombing of the ZANU-PF party headquarters, Zimbabwe’s police torturing an elderly white MP under suspicion of his being a South African agent, and white militants backed by South African blowing up a bunch of military warplanes, white flight grew rapidly. Half of all white Zimbabweans left the country in the first three years of Mugabe’s rule. Meanwhile, in what became known as the Gukurahundi, Mugabe engaged in a brutal and violent crackdown on dissent in the western part of the country that probably led to at least 20,000 dead by 1985. Both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan knew about it, but neither cared, and Reagan warmly welcomed Mugabe to the White House in 1983.
Zimbabwe came to mean Mugabe and Mugabe came to mean Zimbabwe. Mugabe consolidated power in 1987, making constitutional changes that combined a number of high-ranking positions in himself. These constitutional changes allowed him to pick a bunch of Parliament members as well, making it extremely hard to create meaningful opposition to him. When Mugabe left the nation on his long vacations in his later years, the country literally came to a halt, as there was no one who could make decisions. He routinely used anti-colonial rhetoric to deflect blame from his own disastrous leadership, such as blaming the British for a cholera epidemic in 2008, which he called a biological weapon deployed by that nation against him. He dropped the Marxist language after the fall of the Eastern Bloc and embraced free-market economics, but it never really mattered anyway—Mugabe was in it for personal profit and power under any ideology. But the 1990s were hard on Zimbabwe, with a major drop in the standard of living, lower life expectancy, and higher unemployment. Skilled workers emigrated en masse. Mugabe found a useful target to explain all of this—white people. He tarred his opposition in Zimbabwe as being in cahoots with whites, targets gays as living an immoral lifestyle foreign to Zimbabwe’s ways, and committed troops to the civil war in the Congo to deflect criticism.
All of this led to growing criticism inside and outside the country. Internally, Mugabe had potential enemies tortured and killed. Outside was trickier, with Tony Blair a harsh critic. But that wouldn’t stop him, Instead, Mugabe doubled down with the violent seizure of white lands in the early 2000s. While continued white land ownership in the nation absolutely was a legacy of colonialism, this was also a disastrous policy. It was hardly surprising that Mugabe enacted this policy. He had called for the expropriation of white lands going back to his radio broadcasts from Mozambique. The lives of those who took over that land were not significantly improved and it has an utterly horrible impact on the nation’s famed wildlife populations. This has long been a problem with land reform schemes. One can always understand the desire of the landless to own land of their own, but the long-term deleterious impacts almost immediately counter whatever short-term gains result, especially in a nation with a large rural poor population. Mugabe encouraged the landless black farmers to occupy the land of the white landowners. This was a violent process. The move itself was disastrous for Zimbabwe. It did basically nothing to alleviate poverty. Instead, it created a regime of sanctions against the country and against Mugabe himself. It severely undermined one of Africa’s strongest economies and helped lead to the hyperinflation that defined the nation in the 2000s. In 2007, inflation reached 7600%. Corn production plummeted from 2 million tons in 2000 to 450,000 tons by 2008. The seizures themselves were ruled unconstitutional by Zimbabwe’s highest court in 2000, but Mugabe just ignored them. It led to condemnation both inside and outside the nation.
To be fair, over time, the farm redistribution possibly has led to the rise of the nation’s increasingly robust tobacco economy, which grew from 2000 farms in 2000 to 60,000 by 2012. But this industry is almost inherently short-term, both because of the impact of tobacco on soils and because of the widespread deforestation that follows it for curing the leaves. Yet from a revolutionary perspective, I suppose one can make the argument that it had it benefits; after all, Zimbabwe’s economy under white land ownership may have been successful, but that money was concentrated in white hands and now, on the descendants of the old tobacco plantations, it is not.[
Even at the end of his life, Mugabe pledged to never prosecute the killers of white farmers. He called for another purge of white landowners after discovering that 73 commercially operating white farmers owned land in the northeastern part of the nation, when he said, “We are going to take those farms and re-distribute them to our youths.” All of this led to hatred from many in the international community. Tony Blair wanted to take Mugabe out, at least according to South African prime minister Thabo Mbeki, who claimed Blair approached him about the idea and which the South African rejected outright.
Mugabe would hold onto power through the use of mass violence. The only real challenge to him for most of years in power was from Morgan Tsvangirai. In March 2008, presidential elections showed Tsvangirai the winner, with over 47 percent the vote to 43 percent to Mugabe. But with a majority needed to take power, a run-off election was scheduled. Mugabe demagogued his way through that, using massive state violence against Tsvangirai supporters, who he claimed were the tools of his international opponents. His thugs, often veterans of the independence war, frequently attacked his opponents. At least 153 Tsvangirai supporters were killed. Mugabe supporters engaged in gang rapes of women and tens of thousands of people were displaced. This briefly became one of the most unstable parts of the world. Outraged by the violence, Tsvangirai refused to participate in the runoff as a protest. Mugabe “won” 85 percent of the runoff. Still unsure of his ability to dominate the opposition, a power-sharing arrangement was reached, with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister. But this was no real power-sharing, even if the offices were technically split between the parties. Mugabe and his cronies continued to dominate the nation. In 2013, although Tsvangirai hoped to take power and other opposition parties saw an opportunity against the rapidly aging Mugabe, there would be no change of power. Mugabe won 61 percent of the vote in a relatively peaceful election.
Also to the end, Mugabe defined himself as the last anti-colonial fighter. For instance, he lambasted nations such as Nigeria and South Africa for acquiescing to NATO’s no-fly zone over Libya that contributed to the death of Mugabe’s old ally Muammar Gaddafi. Speaking to the World Health Organization’s Regional Committee for Africa summit in 2017, he said about Gaddafi, “Yes he may have been a dictator but he was a friend of his people, a lover of his people, one who desired that his people should develop and not live under poverty…” Sure thing.
He went on, “Then it came to us poor Africans. The Poor Africans, sometimes not thinking well about the consequences of those attacks. So, what did we have? Quite disgraceful and shameful thing.” As shameful as Gaddafi or Mugabe’s crimes? Evidently not!
It turned out in the end that there was one step too far for Robert Mugabe. That was installing his wife as his successor. In November 2017, he fired his long-time crony and VP Emmerson Mnangagwa. Many accused Mugabe of having Mnangagwa poisoned with palladium, a specialty of Vladimir Putin’s murders of those he finds threatening, and then accusing his opponents of saying he was a witch for it. For the army and for the other leaders of Mugabe’s party, watching the old man crumble to be replaced by his awful wife, this was a step too far. Mugabe was placed under house arrest by the military and finally he resigned later that month, thanks to a large payment of at least $10 million and many other perks that made the transition to extremely rich ex-kleptocrat a little easier.
Mugabe is finally dead now, a reminder of the sadness and disappointment that often came with the post-colonial world.