By Simon Green
After a 37 year-long reign that saw Zimbabwe’s first post-independence leader rise to international infamy, Robert Mugabe left office on 21st November 2017. But will he be remembered by history for his positives or negatives?
Born in 1926 when the country was still very much under British imperial rule, Mugabe later trained as a teacher. After the white population declared independence from Britain in 1965, Mugabe became a key figure in the ‘freedom fight’ to oust the racist leadership in a brutal guerrilla war in the 1970s.
Mugabe often seemed blasé to his country’s economic plight, blaming it on a Western conspiracy to re-colonise the country or as simply untrue
Mugabe was elected Prime Minister in the country’s first elections after the abolition of the Rhodesian state in 1980 and then became the country’s second president in 1987.
He was able to stay in power for so long due to a mix of his heroic reputation from fighting in the country’s race-fuelled civil war, improvement of the health and education sectors and the suppression of his opponents through strong military backing.
The only way Mugabe felt he could retain any level of popularity among his people was to try and create a personality-cult-style myth around him and his government
The latter of these is probably the way in which the majority of the international community will remember the Mugabe ‘dictatorship’: the leader who ruled with an iron fist. This reputation was established particularly after the Mugabe-linked militias’ brutal repression of opposition elements in the country, following the loss of a referendum on constitutional reform. Pictures of land seizures and the aftermath of severe violence were streamed across the globe throughout much of the 2000s, and led to Mugabe really sealing his grip on executive power in the country.
Adding to the violence, the economy suffered immense levels of inflation, reaching 231,000,000% in 2008. While this of course created huge instability and poverty for his citizens, Mugabe often seemed blasé to his country’s economic plight, blaming it on a Western conspiracy to re-colonise the country or as simply untrue. Such assertions gave him the appearance of a cartoon African dictator rather than a real politician, according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Such a view was emphasised when him and his wife, Grace, were seen wearing t-shirts with the leader’s face on. It seemed like the only way Mugabe felt he could retain any level of popularity among his people was to try and create a personality-cult-style myth around him and his government.
His legacy will be altered by the images of a frail and aging man being made to accept his fate
In latter years, it seemed like the former teacher was softening. In 2008, he was quoted as saying “If you lose an election and are rejected by the people, it is time to leave politics.”. Whether this was a ploy to come across as a realistic politician or to garner sympathy with the Zimbabwe public to make them consider the unknown of a post-Mugabe world is unknown, but earlier this year it really did seem he was manoeuvring for his exit from the political stage.
This, in fact was probably the main cause of the coup d’état undertaken by the military that has taken place over the last few weeks. Following the removal of his ally and vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, from office, it was thought that Mugabe was setting his wife up as his successor. This was why the military saw it necessary to step in and relinquish Mr Mugabe of his position.
The overriding image which history will remember is a defiant figure
Although on the face of it, this seemed like the power of the people being exercised and a long-term dictator being ousted, it is not quite as simple of that. In reality, seeing a woman at the head of Zimbabwean politics was just too much for leading military figures to handle.
In reality, his legacy will be altered by the images of a frail and aging man being made to accept his fate. For all his minor improvements to and brutal repression of Zimbabwe and his people, at the end his frailty made his almost an object for empathy.
Despite this pathetic image he now portrays, the overriding image which history will remember is a defiant figure. For all his horrific actions, the people of his home nation will never forget such an image. Whatever your opinions on him, I think few would dispute that.
Image: dai18 via Flickr