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Mugabe: The rise of a liberator . . . and fall of a tyrant

BROUGHT into the nationalist movement reportedly because of his eloquence and clarity of thought, former President Robert Mugabe’s legacy as one of the most ruthless tyrants of modern times will remain as an indelible mark in modern political parlance.

BROUGHT into the nationalist movement reportedly because of his eloquence and clarity of thought, former President Robert Mugabe’s legacy as one of the most ruthless tyrants of modern times will remain as an indelible mark in modern political parlance.


Zimbabweans creaked and groaned under his rule, wanted him out of office at least since the mid-to-late 90s, but consistently failed.

Even the emergence of a popular opposition party led by fiery trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai failed in at least five times.

Mugabe rose to power on the coattails of a gun in the form of what is known as the Mgagao Declaration and fell at the hands of the army under an operation code-named “Operation Restore Legitimacy”.

He was born on February 21, 1924 at Kutama Mission in Zvimba communal lands in the Zezuru ethnic heartland.

The young Mugabe was schooled by Roman Catholic Jesuits and according to family relative and fellow nationalist James Chikerema, he had an aloof personality that forced him into seclusion, including separating his cattle from other boys when herding.

Mugabe qualified as a school teacher, taught at Dadaya Mission in the Midlands and Hope Fountain in Matabeleland South in the then Southern Rhodesia before enrolling at South Africa’s Fort Hare University, where he rubbed shoulders with other young Africans who would become prominent nationalists years later among them Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Joshua Nkomo and Nelson Mandela.

After Fort Hare, Mugabe went to teach in Ghana following that country’s independence under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah and on his return, joined the National Democratic Party (NDP) in 1960 as publicity secretary.

In 1961, he automatically joined the newly-formed Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), the successor party to the NDP following the banning of the latter.

When Zapu was banned, Mugabe and other nationalists of Shona extraction led by Ndabaningi Sithole broke away to form the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) in August 1963, where he was elected secretary-general.

The Rhodesian regime, then led by Ian Smith, again banned Zanu and Nkomo’s People’s Caretaker Council (PCC).

The next year, when the Rhodesian regime rounded up most nationalists Mugabe was not spared. He was sent to detention without trial for 10 years.

Internal power struggles were a norm and when Mugabe was released from detention in 1974, Zanu was leading an insurrection from Tanzania and Zambia with thousands of young people joining the struggle to fight for majority rule.

In early 1975, the enigmatic Zanu national chairman Herbert Chitepo was killed in a bomb blast in Lusaka in what remains a mystery as to who was behind it.

Sithole, then party president, was rejected by the party’s armed wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (Zanla) and party deputy president Leopold Takawira had died of diabetes while in detention in 1974.

This left Mugabe as the most senior leader as secretary-general. As the world mourned Chitepo in March 1975, Mugabe slipped out of Rhodesia into the newly independent State of Mozambique to join the swelling numbers of youth on Rhodesia’s eastern frontier.

A Zanla declaration handed down at a military camp known as Mgagao in Tanzania rejected Sithole and declared Mugabe as leader. It was the beginning of a glamourous political career and the birth of a liberation war stalwart who would turn despot.

It was a violent struggle against a repressive and brutal regime, but with hindsight, it seems Smith’s brutality created a monster in Mugabe. He mimicked Smith in manner and deed up to the end.

Initially, reports indicate Mugabe was rejected by Zanla, but with time, they accepted him and in different summits to negotiate independence, he became a global star with his wit and intelligence.

Zanu’s star also rose and when, Lord Christopher Soames and British Premier Margaret Thatcher brokered a deal in 1979 to end the Smith rebellion, to everyone’s surprise, the Marxist-Communist guerrilla leader Mugabe against all odds won the new independent State of Zimbabwe’s first all-race elections to become the country’s first black leader on April 18, 1980.

The manner in which Mugabe won the poll reportedly left a sour taste in the mouth with reports of gruesome murders and beatings in the countryside, as he sought to outdo the popular Nkomo by hook-or-crook. It would be a tactic that Mugabe would use in all elections throughout his life.

Mugabe quickly moved to entrench his rule and decimate any opposition. He turned his guns on his mentor Nkomo’s Zapu and engineered what is Southern Africa’s greatest genocide, now known as Gukurahundi.

With global powers fixated with the Cold War between the West and Russia, Mugabe went about his business of killing while picking global accolades as a liberator across the world. He was feted by all leaders including a knighting by the British monarch.

In all, conservative figures claim at least 20 000 people were killed by Mugabe’s North Korea-trained crack military unit, the Fifth Brigade.

In 1987, Nkomo capitulated, Mugabe changed the Constitution and elevated himself to executive President.

Nkomo became his deputy and Mugabe’s dream of a one-party State seemed to be taking shape and his party was transformed to Zanu PF.

However, his erstwhile comrade Edgar Tekere broke away to form the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM), but Mugabe again turned to violence to subdue his former guerrilla colleague.

Mugabe easily won the 1990 elections.

The 1979 agreement that brought independence had a clause that forced Mugabe’s administration to shelve land redistribution for 10 years and this was supposed to kick-in in 1990. But political developments in the region forced Mugabe to stall.

At that time the buzzword in the developing world was Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) under the auspices of the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund). Zimbabwe adopted Esap, but this failed to show up the economy and Mugabe bore the brunt of citizens disgruntlement.

Then the land seizures took place. Plans to redistribute land peacefully were not working and, ultimately, the wartime “veterans” were sent in to dispossess the white farmers of their land, often violently.

However, despite all his failings, Mugabe’s social policies uplifted the living standards of Zimbabweans; his education for all policy will be an enduring legacy of his administration.

Zimbabweans are some of the most educated people in the world with an unparalleled work ethic. Health facilities were extended to most parts of the country and agricultural production anchored the country’s economy. Mugabe’s policy of subsidising most economic sectors was unsustainable.

Zimbabweans loved Mugabe, paid little regard to his moves to entrench his rule or changes to the Constitution that kept him in power. The failure of Esap and the shrinkage of industrial production forced citizens to sit-up and take note.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, led by then fiery secretary-general Morgan Tsvangirai, fronted nationwide strikes that nearly brought down Mugabe’s government.

The beginning of the end!

In anger, Mugabe invited Tsvangirai to form “your own party and join politics”. The invitation was accepted and by 2000, pro-democracy groups such as the National Constitutional Assembly and Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had forced Mugabe into agreeing to constitutional reforms, resulting in a draft that was, however, rejected at a referendum in February that year.

It was the first time Mugabe had ever been defeated in an electoral process. His reaction was swift and brutal. The Zanu PF leader unleashed veterans of the liberation struggle to forcibly confiscate white-owned farms in an orgy of violence that left scores dead and the country’s economic backbone decimated.

Dozens of white farmers were killed in the mayhem, but Mugabe would not flinch, the land had become his trump card and it worked.

In 2004, Zanu PF held its congress and Mnangagwa, then viewed as Mugabe’s heir apparent, was shoo-in to walk into the party’s presidium as deputy president. Mugabe pulled the rug from under his feet after forcing through a constitutional change that would require that one of his deputies would be a woman in the form of Joice Mujuru.

A meeting arranged at Dinyane Secondary School with assistance from witty public administrator Jonathan Moyo to elevate Mnangagwa to Vice-President had been undone at the stroke of a pen. Mnangagwa survived, but his acolytes, including Moyo, bore the brunt of Mugabe’s vindictiveness.

He used violence to win the 2000 parliamentary election and on the eve of the 2002 presidential election, the military rolled out tanks onto the streets of the capital and other major centres to cow Zimbabweans into voting for the Zanu PF leader.

As if that was not enough, the country’s top generals’ led by General Vitalis Zvinavashe appeared on national television announcing they would never salute to anyone “without liberation war credentials”, a euphemism for Tsvangirai.

The MDC leader was arrested for treason, the election went ahead and Mugabe won.

Tsvangirai challenged the result and the case is still to be heard at the High Court.

With age catching up, Mugabe became even more belligerent and cunning. The economy nose-dived, but Mugabe clung on. The local currency went into comatose and has never recovered.

In 2008, Mugabe lost to Tsvangirai in the first round of voting, but reportedly cooked figures with assistance from the military and Mnangagwa, who was then Defence minister.

Results were announced after two months showing Tsvangirai had failed to reach the required threshold to assume power.

A run-off was called and Mugabe again unleashed an orgy of violence, forcing Tsvangirai to pull-out. The Zanu PF leader was announced winner and was inaugurated at night.

The result was rejected at home and abroad, forcing Mugabe into a coalition government with Tsvangirai as Prime Minister.

Four years later, a fresh election was called in 2013, Mugabe won with a landslide victory, but Tsvangirai again cried foul, arguing rigging.

Mugabe ignored him and continued as usual. Zanu PF began plans for its congress in 2014 and it emerged his wife First Lady Grace Mugabe had political ambitions. The plan was clinical. Oppah Muchinguri was forced to relinquish her position as women’s league leader to pave way for Grace.

Grace did not stop there, she wanted the ultimate prize, but few even in Zanu PF had anticipated this or saw it coming. The First Lady embarked on a nationwide vilification campaign of then Mujuru.

In December 2014, Mujuru was removed along with hundreds of her supporters including liberation war stalwarts Rugare Gumbo and Didymus Mutasa. Mnangagwa, Zanu PF’s political bogeyman nicknamed Ngwena (the Crocodile), was elevated to take Mujuru’s place.

Mugabe’s succession conundrum seemed to have been settled. Or so it seemed. All Mnangagwa needed to do was bid his time as ailing Mugabe would surely step down sooner rather than later.

Mugabe was immediately endorsed as Zanu PF candidate for elections that were four years away. He would be 94 next February. The internal jockeying continued and the factionalism that had resulted in Mujuru’s expulsion reared its ugly head again. Mnangagwa became the target of a fresh vilification campaign once more fronted by Grace.

He watched as his supporters were purged. He was attacked in public by his juniors in some of the most humiliating political images to ever come out of Zanu PF. Mugabe did nothing. If anything, he seemed to have tacitly applauded from the background or better still funded the same.

Grace attacked her opponents in the women’s league, leading to the suspension of some of her hitherto most vociferous supporters, among them Hurungwe East MP Sarah Mahoka and Bulawayo Provincial Affairs minister Eunice Sandi Moyo.

The First Lady had embarked on another round of meet-the-people rallies which she used to lash out at Mnangagwa, although without identifying him by name and the military.

Mugabe also stoked another succession frontier after a nasty fall-out with veterans of the liberation struggle. The former fighters were teargassed after trying to gather in Harare before they were allowed to meet Mugabe in April last year.

The meeting yielded little and at the end of July the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans’ Association (ZNLWVA) headed by Christopher Mutsvangwa lashed out at Mugabe in uncharacteristic fashion.

Mugabe was described in the foul communique as a “genocidal and manipulative leader”. The war veterans demanded that he hands over power to Mnangagwa. The demands only served to embolden Mugabe’s resolve not to anoint Mnangagwa, but then he kept this to himself.

In May this year, Mugabe embarked on youth interface rallies that initially looked innocuous, but later morphed into a platform to attack Mnangagwa.

The ever witty Moyo had public spats with Zimbabwe Defence Forces Commander General Constantino Chiwenga and other generals.

Mnangagwa’s Team Lacoste faction with support from State agents tried to force the party to expel party commissar Saviour Kasukuwere to no avail. Moyo was hauled before the courts on allegations he had pillaged the Zimbabwe Manpower Development Fund (Zimdef) of over $430 000, but to no avail. The two were protected by Mugabe and his wife.

But Mnangagwa remained a frontrunner to take over from Mugabe until June this year when Moyo dropped Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi into the ring at a public discussion and all hell broke loose. According to Moyo then, Sekeramayi was better-placed to succeed Mugabe.

The youth rallies continued and Mnangagwa was allegedly poisoned at the Gwanda gathering, airlifted to South Africa and joined the bandwagon on his return.

But internally, Mnangagwa’s supporters had reportedly accused Mugabe and his wife of trying to kill Mnangagwa using ice cream from his Gushungo dairies. Mugabe was angry and forced Mnangagwa into a public apology as well as revealing his medical records.

At the Mashonaland Central rally in Bindura, Grace attacked Mnangagwa and the war had officially began. She had pitched for his removal, but Mugabe tried to act the devil’s advocate.

Matters came to a head in Bulawayo on Saturday November 4 after Grace was booed by a section of the crowd, prompting Mugabe to threaten firing Mnangagwa.

The following day, Grace addressed members of the apostolic sect at Rufaro Stadium in the capital and Mnangagwa’s fate was sealed.

On Monday November 6, Mugabe announced he had sacked his deputy and most trusted lieutenant for over half a century. Two days later, Zanu PF’s politburo rubberstamped the decision, forcing Mnangagwa to flee into exile.

There had been rumours Mugabe intended to decimate Mnangagwa’s support base in the military and when reports emerged that Major General Trust Mugova had been deployed to the African Union while Chiwenga was away on government business in China, tensions rose.

Chiwenga returned on November 11 and was reportedly almost arrested at Harare International Airport. A near-deadly scuffle ensued, but Chiwenga survived.

A day later, the CDF shocked the world after issuing a damning public rebuke of Mugabe and demanding an end to Zanu PF internal purges, especially of people connected “with the liberation struggle”.

It was downhill from here. It was a question of who would blink first. After a stormy Cabinet meeting, Mugabe reacted by reportedly issuing an order for Chiwenga’s arrest and Information minister Simon Khaya Moyo issued a statement in his capacity as Zanu PF spokesperson describing Chiwenga’s conduct as “treasonous and not representative of the military’s command element”.

The die had been cast and the army, in the dead of night, moved in placing Mugabe under house arrest and hunting down leading figures in the G40 faction in scenes that shocked the world, given Mugabe had shown the façade of someone with a stranglehold on the military apparatus.

Mugabe had fallen!

On November 21, Mugabe — born on February 21 — threw in the towel. He begrudgingly resigned as Parliament sat to debate a motion to impeach him for dereliction of duty and allowing his wife to usurp his constitutional executive power.

Indeed, this is an expected end and a lesson of how not to lead a country.