From revolutionary to deposed leader, Dr Sue Onslow analyses the life and legacy of Robert Mugabe, one of Africa’s longest serving leaders.

The tragedy of Robert Gabriel Mugabe was he stayed too long in office. Consequently, the real achievements in terms of socio-economic development in Zimbabwe in the 1980s – improved education and primary health care, and (modest) land reform – have long since faded from public consciousness.

This is not to pretend that the record of his first coalition government was uniformly benign. Far from it. Under his leadership, the violence in Matabeleland between 1982 and 1987 resulted in the deaths of between 20,000–30,000 Zimbabweans. Some even put the appalling death toll as high as 50,000. The community still bears deep psychological scars and enduring trauma.

Mugabe’s rhetoric of reconciliation and nation-building, which was so striking to both the suspicious white population and the international community, faded as the 1990s progressed, into renewed calls to continue the liberation struggle’s goals and the reconfiguration of Zimbabwean ‘patriotism’.

Leadership in young democracies has proved a key factor in shaping their post-independence trajectory. Although the recent history of Zimbabwe cannot be simply distilled to just one man, Robert Mugabe certainly left an indelible mark on his country.

As a dedicated leader within a liberation movement and as a political personality, Mugabe was intricately linked to the outcome of Zimbabwe’s original struggle for independence. In his long stint as head of the political wing of ZANU-PF, then as prime minister, and later president of Zimbabwe, Mugabe proved a past master at the art of ‘divide and rule’ – of manoeuvring between rival factions within ZANU in Mozambique, and winning the initially reluctant endorsement of the leaders of its military wing, ZANLA.

Fundamentally, this ensured that his ideological conviction of the ultimate victory of the military struggle in Zimbabwe’s Second Chimurenga obliged his less committed nominal partner and political rival, Joshua Nkomo, to hold out against a political deal with the internal settlement in Rhodesia in 1978. Through the infiltration of ZANLA fighters into rural Zimbabwe outside the assembly camps, the war-weary population was pressured and persuaded of the attractions – as well as the necessity – of a ZANU-PF victory in the 1980 elections. In the political struggle associated with the violent Gukurahundicampaignin the 1980s, Joshua Nkomo and fellow ZAPU politicians, were separated from their former military power-base, as Mugabe progressively arrogated more and more power to himself.

By the early 1990s Mugabe’s international political image and reputation was one of the senior successful national liberation leaders-turned politician, a pillar of the modern Commonwealth and key regional advocate for transition in neighbouring South Africa. By the end of the decade, his star was in relative eclipse: the product of his thwarted attempts to accelerate land restitution, the choice of Emergency Structural Adjustment Programme and associated domestic austerity, accelerating multiple social and political challenges at home. And on the international scene, the flawed decision to intervene in war in the DRC, and his growing disillusion with the changing Commonwealth.

Mugabe decided to ride the tiger of supposed war veterans’ demands for larger pensions – with disastrous financial results for the Zimbabwean public purse – then land hunger, to counteract the Movement for Democratic Change’s (MDC) urban constituencies and growing support base.

The progressive economic melt-down of the country, which was paralleled by the growing militarisation of government administration from 2000, saw Mugabe at the forefront of manipulating the country’s recent history to ZANU-PF’s advantage. Long accustomed to using violence as a political language, the ZANU-PF Politburo and security chiefs unleashed a programmeof abduction, beatings and intimidation.

By this time, the country was effectively being run by the security apparatus’ Joint Operations Command (JOC). At the apex of these structures of state security sat Robert Mugabe and a network of key elites who had a direct interest in sustaining his rule. Interestingly, the JOC refused to let Mugabe stand down following the 2008 election.

Other elites, too, also twisted and manipulated the past to ensure their continuing access to power and the financial resources of the state. In the Government of National Unity of 2009–13, Morgan Tsvangirai found himself outsmarted by the veteran leader. The point here is that Mugabe was the ultimate political survivor, a deft politician whom Machiavelli would have admired, but also a leader whom it served different military, political and business elites’ interests to keep him there, and whom, in turn, he was attentive to placate and manipulate.

How to sum up Mugabe’s qualities and his vices? Like Nelson Mandela, he was a ‘prison graduate’, having spent 10 years in a Rhodesian jail. The experience taught him remarkable self-possession to contain his anger at private personal tragedy, racial and social injustice in Rhodesia, and its delayed transition to black majority rule.

A highly intelligent and learned man who, as Lord Carrington once observed, could be magnanimous when things were going his way, but turned vicious in adversity. An intellectual shaped by his Jesuit education and his Marxist beliefs, there was a remarkable consistency to his thinking – despite the fact that the rest of the world and the international political economy had moved on, he resolutely refused to do so. A bibliophile, even as Zimbabwe’s leader, he would fly incognito to London to browse the bookshelves of Dillon’s. An eloquent and charismatic speaker, he tailored his message according to his audience, and ensured that these resonated directly with the hopes and aspirations of his listeners.

Mugabe was a deeply complex and contradictory individual.  A man capable of great charm and considerate hospitality, it was highly likely he was undoubtedly responsible for the political assassination of opponents and critics (such as the suspicious death of the ZANLA military leader, Josiah Tongogarain a car crash in December 1979); and ultimately for mass murder of his own people, the economic collapse of his country, sizeable outward migration and enormous suffering brought on by starvation.

He was a dedicated revolutionary, who deeply admired the Queen and appreciated Savile Row suits. A man of personal conviction, he oversaw the rampant theft of his country’s assets and enabled the rapacious spending habits of his second wife and family. As a political manipulator, he consolidated his personal power through structures and personalities, through rivals and antagonists who ‘worked towards the leader’. And as a political manager, he oversaw ZANU-PF’s policies as a rural-based movement, which produced Zimbabwe’s deprivation, but which presented itself through largesse, food handouts, and access to land for voters as the solution.

Robert Mugabe caused profound damage to his country which will take generations to address. By presiding over a particular programme of revolution and decolonisation, he oversaw the socio-economic transformation of his country, but precious few benefited.

Land reform was much needed – make no mistake about that – but the mode and means of this transformation tore apart rural welfare and employment structures, and impoverished millions. The return to growth in the agriculture sector has been partial and food security remains fundamentally compromised, complicated by a severe drought in 2015–16.

Meanwhile, the state’s resources of diamonds were comprehensively looted and lost to the exchequer. The conservative estimate is $16bn. The once admired Zimbabwe health care system has been gutted, and the highly respected tertiary education and training sector battered beyond recognition. Currently there are an estimated 3.5 million Zimbabweans living outside the country.

On Mugabe’s watch, Zimbabwe became a rogue state, seen in the use of military and extra-judicial force during his time in office and his collaboration with Gaddafi (which included allowing terrorist training camps on Zimbabwean soil). His political machinations – a US diplomatic cable, published by Wikileaks in 2007 described him as a ‘brilliant tactician’ – were directly associated with his acute reading of people, an ability to listen to spot flaws in argument, as well as a conviction of his own intellectual superiority and authority. He was not known as ‘the headmaster’ for nothing.

Imbued with suspicion of the West, he was tenacious in his focus on the past as justification of current actions. Stephen Chan shrewdly pointed out that it was Mugabe who remained constant, while the rest of the world and his country changed around him. To the mystification of Western observers, Mugabe remained ideologically popular in the region and to wider Africa. His repeated denunciations of neo-colonialists, earned him sincere admiration for ‘standing up’ to Western hectoring. There is an important rationale to this. What, after all, was independence if not total equality and entitlement, and a refusal to be browbeaten by former colonial oppressors?

Following a long-brewed crisis of factional infighting within ZANU-PF over the succession, exacerbated by the political ambitions of his rapacious second wife, Grace, Mugabe was finally pressured into stepping down on 21 November 2017. He left a country  confronted by multiple economic, political and psychological challenges.

Complex and deep-seated problems associated with a fractured political movement left a dubious legacy within ZANU-PF, and its relationship with the military: a squabbling proliferation of political parties, a compromised judiciary, hollowed-out state institutions in which the security forces control key levers of power. Arguably, these enormous economic and social challenges were comparable to those he found on coming to office in April 1980.

The bookish and highly intelligent Mugabe, obstinately faithful to the ideals of his youth and his formative political experiences in Nkrumah’s Ghana for the transformation of his country, had come to be regarded as the principal author of Zimbabwe’s current troubles. This is simplistic, but as leader he cannot completely escape this damning indictment. Longevity in office proved a Greek tragedy for Robert Mugabe as a man, a leader and his country.

One last post-script. Zimbabwe’s continued economic woes, widespread food and fuel shortages, and the army’s violence against protestors last August and again in January 2019, have led some Zimbabweans to say, ‘Life was better under the Old Man’.

Dr Sue Onslow is deputy director of  the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and co-author (with Martin Plaut) of Robert Mugabe (Ohio University Press 2018).