Columns / Discourse / February 5, 2014

People and Politics: Understanding Mugabe

Over the past week, internationally-despised Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has been drumming up support from fellow African leaders to force the European Union to invite him to the EU-African Union summit set for April.

The support, or lack of criticism that Mugabe gets from several of his regional neighbors has clashed strongly with the view from the West, and it is largely a question of historical memory — the classic question of freedom fighter or terrorist.

He is part of an older generation of anti-colonial fighters, and enjoys support from regional powers like South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), who fought a similar battle in South Africa.

President Mugabe gained power in the multiparty elections held in the wake of the Rhodesian Bush War, a vicious conflict that pitted a British-descended white supremacist government against several black African militant groups.

Three years after coming into power, friction arose between ZANU and fellow ex-rebel group ZAPU, and Mugabe ordered the Gukurahundi — the murder of tens of thousands of civilians in Matabeleland (the homeland of the ZAPU-supporting Ndebele people) by North Korean-trained troops.

At the time few in the country could believe it was happening and many of the northern Shona people still deny such a massacre took place.

Rhodesia, modern-day Zimbabwe, was known as the breadbasket of Africa — most white migrants to the country in the first half of the 20th century were farmers, and employed cheap black labor to build an expansive and successful agricultural sector.

As a result, the issue of land ownership has been a contentious political issue in the country. The 1979 Lancaster House Agreement, which spelt out the political framework for majority rule, also dictated that the issue of land reform be delayed by a decade.

However, little effective reform was enacted in the 1990s, when the Zimbabwean economy outperformed struggling neighbors. Instead, as his support waned, he ordered that fellow veterans should be able to take over the remaining white-owned farms in 2000.

But without an organization to manage this transition, it turned into a violent free-for-all, mobs set to work prying white farmers off their land and more than half of the remaining 2,500 white farmers lost their land.

Referred to in his own country as ‘Bob,’ President Mugabe has had an increasingly tough time getting younger Zimbabweans — who have known only him in office and are agitating for change — on his side.

In the 2008 election, he faced a large, legitimate opposition for the first time and when he in all likelihood lost to Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of elections, Mugabe delayed the vote count, altered it, and violently destroyed the opposition. Thus he voted himself back into office in the second round.

But this time the press was worse and sanctions put strain on an economy already struggling from the loss of its farms. Mugabe was pressured into offering a power-sharing deal to Tsvangirai, who took it, considering it to be an important step.

However Mugabe repeatedly outmaneuvered Tsvangirai, releasing very little power and deflecting criticism from the President’s office to Prime Minister Tsvangirai.

Last year, he succeeded in voting himself back into power (this time without troublesome Morgan), while a new constitution sets presidential term limits at 10 years — not retroactive. His birthday, in a few weeks, will see him begin his 10th decade on earth.

Mugabe’s office is essentially betting on him dying before this and thus passing power to his deputies — those involved with the Gukurahundi massacre.

Bob’s time in power reminds us of two important lessons: revolutionaries do not necessarily make good or just leaders in power, and the colonial period is not as well-buried as many in the West would like to fool themselves into believing.

Tom Courtright
Tom Courtright is a columnist for The Knox Student, primarily covering Africa. He grew up in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania and is currently studying international relations, history and journalism. He begins his volunteer term with Peace Corps in September 2014, on the Pacific island of Fiji.

Tags:  1979 Lancaster Agreement anti-colonial fighters colonialism EU-African summit European leaders Gukurahundi Matabeleland Ndebele Rhodesia Robert Mugabe ZANU ZAPU Zimbabwe

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