If ever one needed evidence that power can make a person turn mad and bad one need look no further than Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe who finally demitted office this week. At the age of 93 and after 37 years in office, first as Prime Minster and then as President, he was manoeuvred out of his political stronghold, but not before an impressive week long game of cat and mouse with the military and parliamentarians.
Mugabe was once my hero. He appeared on the scene in the late-1970s after having spent ten years in prison for subversion and another four years of armed warfare against British colonial rule, launched from neighbouring Mozambique. It was at that time that Sir Shridath Ramphal, then Secretary General of the Commonwealth was engaged in a fierce political and ideological battle with the British government over sanctions against Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was called then, led by the most dislikeable and racist Prime Minister Ian Smith, a farmer and astute, tenacious politician who in order to prevent black majority rule had unilaterally declared independence from Britain.
Mugabe was able to ride the popular Independence wave that swept the world, and as Smith and minority white rule were finally dismantled after a lot of horse trading he led his ZANU-PF party to election victory in 1980 and became Prime Minister of newly independent Zimbabwe. Many of us were ecstatic. Robert Mugabe was bright, tough, energetic, and he had won his spurs in battle. With apartheid South Africa still enduring but with pressure growing for the freeing of Nelson Mandela and an end to white domination, Zimbabwe was the living proof of what was possible.
Mugabe held promise. A highly educated man himself and a former teacher with impeccable diction, he focused on education, building schools all over Zimbabwe. He expanded social services and healthcare.
He observed the constitution and there was power sharing between parties and included whites. He had inherited the second largest economy in Africa, with relatively advanced industry, a booming agriculture sector plenty goodwill but the small white majority of about 1.5 percent of the population owned nearly all the land and the wealth. Mugabe decided to change that.
What ensued was a land grab, often violent, that led to the economic ruination of the country as production levels fell, hyperinflation reached 500billion percent, unemployment rocketed and millions of Zimbabweans fled abroad from poverty and political repression. Mugabe had started cracking down on his political rivals. Corruption took hold. He rigged elections, lands earmarked for black farmers reportedly went to his cronies, family and generals. The diamond mines were nationalised and Mugabe’s personal wealth became legend while GDP per capita dropped to less than war-torn Afghanistan’s.
In a fit of hubris he asserted that only God who appointed him could remove him from office and compared himself to QEII of Britain, enquiring why no one asked her when she would step down. Defiant, when threatened with sanctions he retorted that since Africans were not Europeans they did not mind being banned from Europe, and jettisoned membership of the Commonwealth when that community tried to pressure him.
Where now for Zimbabwe? The people of that country have revealed an extraordinary patience with the democratic process and I would guess want a peaceful transition away from the repression of the last few decades but moving on from the dark years is not easy. Still more patience is needed from them for who in Mr Mugabe’s party, the opposition and, critically, the army knows how to transform the power structures of that country when their only engagement with power has been abusive? Mugabe’s example was that power is an end in itself, power at all cost. The people too must change their own unhealthy relationship to power.
We here know just what a tall order that is.