By Zanda Shumba
Zimbabweans have never been as confused as they are today, following the death of Robert Mugabe, who was labelled a dictator. They are of two minds: is Mugabe a hero or a villain or is he both? They need to decide whether to mourn for him or welcome his death, contrary to their culture of saying a dead man is faultless.
Mugabe became the first black president of Zimbabwe in 1980 after bloody guerrilla warfare that ushered Zimbabwe into independence from Britain.
Mugabe was voted into power in the 1980 general elections. He then quickly consolidated power using a Zanu PF-dominated parliament, in the process weeding out perceived enemies like Joshua Nkomo and Dumiso Dabengwa.
From 1980 to 1990, Mugabe was a darling of Zimbabwe, the world and was feted as a Pan-Africanist by some Africans for advocating and supporting the liberation of African countries, and for at least speaking against white supremacy and neo-colonialism.
From 1995 onwards, Zimbabweans’ love for Mugabe began to wane. In the late 1980s, his government had committed atrocities against Ndebele people who were aligned to Zapu.
His most trusted man, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was State Security minister then, and it would only be upon only Mnangagwa’s recommendation that such an operation would be carried out. More than 20 000 people in Matabeleland and the Midlands provinces were brutally killed in the Gukurahundi massacres.
The government has not admitted responsibility. Earlier commission of inquiry reports were suppressed by Mugabe and state security agents led by Mnangagwa.
Using wealth and productive capacity accumulated during the pre-Independence era, Mugabe’s government embarked on a policy of education-for-all and health-for-all, building schools and hospitals and promoting free primary education. This was widely welcomed by most Zimbabweans, thereby tacitly accepting Mugabe’s ambition for a life presidency.
In any case, dissent was heavily punished. Those belonging to opposition parties would have their property destroyed and houses burnt down with perpetrators facing no legal action or any consequences.
Mugabe never tolerated dissent. Dissent was considered taboo and criticising the president was an abomination. Thus Mugabe amassed power and violently crushed all opposition.
In Zanu PF’s rank and file, unexplained fatal accidents and disappearances would befall those who opposed him.
But he was still considered by some as an Independence hero and commanded vestiges of respect among his ardent supporters. Political analysts say he ruled by fear. Mugabe was Zanu PF, and vice versa. Everyone feared him.
By the turn of the 21st century, with rising economic hardships, rising unemployment, rampant corruption, general disgruntlement and increasing calls for democracy, a formidable opposition party was formed in 1999 — the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Soon after, Zimbabweans would give Zanu PF a bloody nose in a constitutional referendum. An infuriated Mugabe and his young wife would soon order land invasions that resulted in multiple murder and rape cases in which white farmers and their families were targeted.
An exodus of the commercial farmers would ensue, as a new brand of “new farmers” replaced them. This triggered a chain of events, leading to the total collapse of all industry with any links to agriculture, including the investment-supporting financial sector.
The whole economy would soon catch a cold as gross domestic product fell to unprecedented levels, and rising inflation set in.
People had rejected a referendum which in Mugabe’s eyes was needed to correct historical land ownership imbalances. Mugabe, in turn, reacted angrily, leading an agricultural “revolution” that brought great disruption to the vital economic sector.
As disgruntlement grew, the opposition gained momentum. The 2002 election was heavily manipulated, with untold violence meted out on opposition candidates.
Zanu PF had on its side the state-sponsored youths, army, intelligence and state media spewing out propaganda on a minute by minute basis.
Against insurmountable odds, the opposition went on to fare impressively in violent national elections. The opposition even won a parliamentary majority.
The pressure would be doubled in 2008 after Mugabe completely lost to Morgan Tsvangirai. It took two whole months of all state machinery to work around the clock to doctor the election result to bring Mugabe’s votes to within the threshold that would necessitate an election run-off.
Talk was there, and very much of it, that old Bob had actually offered to concede defeat in the first-round election defeat, but Emmerson Mnangagwa, his most trusted aid, would not let him. Transferring power then would have destroyed Mnangagwa’s hope for the presidency in future.
A run-off was announced by state media well before the presidential election results, which were eventually delivered to the cowering Zimbabweans.
I will not talk of the ruthlessness with which Zanu PF meted out violence during the run-off, with Tsvangirai pulling out at the last minute, fearing for the opposition members’ lives. Mugabe would soon win a solo and hollow run-off after which he would literally force and beg (in equal measure) the opposition to form a unity government to improve his acceptance and legitimacy at home and abroad.
Amid so much thuggery, deception, trickery and treachery, a reckless and naïve MDC would be persuaded and coerced to concur. Of all the conditions and reforms prescribed by the GNU, only one was met.
A very compromising constitution was cobbled together, tailor-made to favour Zanu PF’s regeneration, with the opposition consigned to the dustbin in the 2013 general election. With the constitution favouring him, Mugabe would, as said the state media crowed, “resoundingly” win the 2013 election. Mugabe would then soon focus on purging his internal party opponents.
Most people acknowledge that Mugabe’s most trusted man — Mnangagwa — was doing all the dirty work to keep the big man in power, but not for Mugabe’s sake but for Manngagwa’s own future power ambition. But in the process it was Mugabe’s name that was soiled and badly so.
Whilst Mugabe concentrated mainly on consolidating and retaining power, the economy kept shrinking, unemployment rose, companies closed, poverty worsened among the people and infrastructure suffered. An ageing Mugabe had by that time delegated most of his powers to his young wife Grace.
Grace could not officially chair cabinet, but was in the habit of chastening and chiding senior party officials at rallies, barking out instructions.
Powerless and afraid to do anything, Zimbabweans would only watch. They were like foreigners in their own land. They helplessly watched drama unfold, drama that negatively impacted on their welfare. Mugabe’s government made no effort to fight corruption, which soon became Zanu PF stock in trade. Senior Zanu PF and government officials became stinking rich from plundering natural resources and the government purse.
Afraid of Mugabe’s government cruelty, Zimbabweans vowed never to complain. Zimbabweans kept praying and hoping that internal Zanu PF fights would eventually see change in government. This would happen in November 2017 when Mugabe was eventually deposed by the same army that kept him in power for more than three decades.
Not in control of events, Zimbabweans would wake up to see themselves with a worse government than that of the toppled ruler. It was a government that was brazenly corrupt. It would call itself new dispensation, but it was far worse in handling the affairs of Zimbabweans. So now Zimbabweans are far worse off than before, with no fuel, 18-hour power cuts, very high cost of basic commodities, economic stagflation and a government that does not care at all.
On the other hand, if Mugabe truly cared about the welfare of Zimbabwe he would have respected the will of Zimbabwean people and transfer power when he lost.
On three occasions, he disrespected helpless Zimbabweans.
Led by an unforgiving Mnangagwa, his party meted untold violence on the electorate, to sway election results in his favour. Whenever he stole elections, Zimbabweans lost a chance to be able to steer the country in a direction they favoured.
Aided by his most trusted aide Mnangagwa, who eventually led a coup against him, Mugabe imposed his will on long-suffering Zimbabweans from 2002 onwards.
However, after the coup, President Mnangagwa’s government attribute all the violence and intransigence to one man, Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Gullible Zimbabweans would celebrate the removal of Mugabe in a frenzy, but two years down the line, there is no improvement, but the situation has gotten much worse, actually out of control. Zimbabweans are actually regretting now.
However, although Mugabe is no longer in power, the same human rights abuses and election manipulation and theft still persist on an industrial scale. It is as if Mugabe is still in charge. Even though Mugabe is no longer in power, state media propaganda is at its worst level ever.
Corruption has now blossomed. Should the nation exonerate Mugabe after observing that it is his acolyte who was committing all the violence, but hiding behind Robert Mugabe’s name? Probably that is why Mugabe died a very bitter man.
I think this is what perplexes Zimbabweans, making it difficult whether to sympathise with Mugabe or rejoice over his death.
They appreciate that Mugabe was not passive, but actively implemented a power-retention strategy. They also wonder whether Mnangagwa would have ever tasted power if he had not persuaded Mugabe to remain in power. But he eventually had to wrest that power from Mugabe, who eventually died a bitter man, having realised that he has been betrayed by Mnangagwa.
Some people are toying with the idea that perhaps Mugabe was not that bad after all, but was the victim of a “system” bigger than him. Mugabe loved power, whilst his cronies loved to accumulate wealth. Both got what they wanted from the synergy.
While Mugabe basked in glory, people like Mnangagwa accumulated immense wealth. In the process, Zimbabweans got poorer, infrastructure dilapidated, health delivery system collapsed, education system failed, unemployment soared to 90%.
At some point Mnangagwa tried to convince the nation that command agriculture had indeed created two million jobs, but this was pie in the sky.
Shumba is a local political commentator.