Thursday 19 September 2019

Obituary: Robert Mugabe

Tyrant of Zimbabwe who presided over the despoliation of the country once hailed as the 'jewel of Africa'

Ruthless: Ex-president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe
Ruthless: Ex-president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe, the former president of Zimbabwe who died last Friday aged 95, began his 37 years in power as a Nobel Peace Prize nominee credited with creating Africa's most successful multiracial state.

By the time he was ousted in November 2017 his repressive determination to remain in charge had driven the country into ruin and ensured his place as an international pariah, while the determination of his widely despised second wife, Grace, to succeed him had threatened to plunge the country into civil war and led to a military intervention.

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Mugabe had risen to prominence as a Marxist guerrilla leader against white minority rule in Rhodesia. Then, in 1980, he was elected the newly independent state of Zimbabwe's first prime minister.

But once settled in office, having overcome opposition from white farmers and opposition black politicians, he presided over the despoliation of the country whose existence he had helped to bring about.

Once called the "jewel of Africa" by the president of Mozambique, Zimbabwe under Mugabe became the second poorest country in the world, with unemployment and poverty rates of around 80pc and one of the lowest life expectancies on Earth.

Mugabe's one-time admirers in the West were surprised by his dramatic transformation from revolutionary hero into Third World tyrant; for although he had never made any secret of his ambition to create a one-party state, he had appeared to tolerate the trappings of democracy.

Despite outbursts of socialist rhetoric, Mugabe honoured the terms of the 1980 constitution, agreed at the Lancaster House conference, which gave the 200,000-strong white minority 20 seats in parliament for seven years and forbade compulsory land seizures.

"Watch what I do; ignore what I say," was his implicit message to white business leaders. His peace prize nomination of 1980 was for promoting reconciliation between whites and blacks.

Yet there had always been people who saw a darker side to his character; the writer Peter Godwin described Mugabe as an "African Robespierre" - highly educated and utterly ruthless. It was only a question of time before he showed his true colours.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on February 21 1924, in the village of Kutama, Mashonaland West province, the son of a carpenter. His mother was a formidable catholic woman, but his father abandoned the family when he was young - and two of his three brothers died.

Mugabe was a star pupil at his Jesuit mission school. His first job was as a teacher at a mission school. In 1950, sponsored by the Jesuits, Mugabe went to Fort Hare University in South Africa to study politics. Later he moved to a teacher training college in Ghana, where he absorbed the radical pan-Africanism of the late president Kwame Nkrumah. Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia determined to fan the flames of black nationalism there.

In 1960 he joined the National Democratic Party led by Joshua Nkomo, which aimed to achieve "one man, one vote" through civil disobedience and moral persuasion. But the NDP was split over a new constitution drawn up by British colonial officials in 1961, which let blacks be elected to the Southern Rhodesian parliament for the first time.

Mugabe opposed it because the constitution granted 50 of the 65 seats to whites, who made up only about 5pc of the population. Nkomo, however, was in favour - and the bitter disagreement within the NDP was a foretaste of divisions in black nationalism.

Amid growing black unrest, the NDP was banned in December 1961, only to be replaced almost immediately by the Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu) with Mugabe as secretary general under Nkomo. In 1962 riots led to Zapu being banned and Mugabe and other black leaders were arrested. He was behind bars for three months and after his release a fiery speech landed him in jail again. Within a month, he escaped and fled to Tanzania.

In Dar es Salaam, Mugabe broke with Nkomo and joined the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole to form the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu). In 1963, Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia as secretary general of the new party, but was arrested for having broadcast an incendiary speech from Tanzania.

In early 1964 tension between Zanu and Zapu boiled over into violence in the black townships, and after members of Zanu murdered a white farmer in July 1964, both parties were banned - and their leaders, including Mugabe, detained indefinitely.

With the African nationalist movement splintered and its leaders out of circulation, in November 1965 the white minority leader Ian Smith felt strong enough to make his most fateful decision.

He feared that Britain would impose black majority rule on Rhodesia, so Smith unilaterally declared independence, leading the first rebellion against British rule by white settlers since 1776.

In prison Mugabe became even more deeply committed to Marxism. When his only child by his first marriage died of malaria in 1966, he petitioned to attend the funeral. The request was personally turned down by Ian Smith.

The bloody liberation war began in 1972 when Mugabe was still incarcerated. In 1974 he was elected Zanu leader while still in prison.

International efforts to end the conflict flickered until the peace conference at Lancaster House in September 1979 agreed a ceasefire, a new constitution and multi-racial elections that would take place under British supervision in March 1980.

Mugabe's Zanu-PF party won 57 of the 80 black seats, making him prime minister. His greatest triumph came on April 1980, with the birth of the independent Republic of Zimbabwe. His election victory had given him enough seats to govern alone, but Mugabe chose to form a coalition with Nkomo and put two white ministers in his first cabinet.

For a brief period, he was hailed as a symbol of racial reconciliation. But his grimmer instincts soon began to reveal themselves. In 1982, he sacked Nkomo, accusing his rival of plotting a coup. In 1983, he sent an army unit of North Korean-trained soldiers to subdue Matabeleland. These were placed outside the army's normal command structure and answered directly to Mugabe.

Once in Matabeleland, Mugabe's forces brutally suppressed a small-scale rebellion by killing at least 8,000 civilians and systematically torturing or detaining tens of thousands more. Mugabe imposed strict censorship and expelled Western journalists who revealed the crackdown.

Apologists in the West said Mugabe's actions were consistent with his oft-stated ambition of making Zimbabwe a one-party Marxist state. Meanwhile his role in the campaign against apartheid in South Africa obscured much.

Western liberal opinion continued to fete Mugabe, making Zimbabwe attractive to foreign investors In the 1980s the white-dominated farm industry boomed. In 1991 Mugabe agreed liberal reforms with the IMF and World Bank. Life seemed to improve for all Zimbabweans: by 1988 school enrolments were nearly 10 times higher than in 1979 and, despite the spread of Aids, life expectancy had increased to 58 by 1986, compared with 45 in 1960.

Mugabe had once seemed a model of ascetic self-denial. He neither smoked nor drank; order and self-discipline had been the hallmark of his political style. He was twice married, first in 1961 to Sally Hayfron, a Ghanaian woman who was popular with Zimbabweans. After she died in 1992, he married Grace Marufu, a secretary 40 years his junior. She was known as "Gucci Grace" on account of her extravagance and became as deeply unpopular as her predecessor had been popular.

As Zimbabweans struggled to buy a daily bowl of maize, Mugabe and Grace lived on a lavish scale. Scheduled Air Zimbabwe jets would be requisitioned on the runway to ferry the couple on international shopping trips, with Harrods a favourite.

In Zimbabwe, the Mugabes owned at least six properties, including the vulgar and publicly detested "Gracelands", a specially built mansion designed in honour of his wife, but derisively nicknamed by many Zimbabweans.

Yet it was not corruption or the suffering of his people that turned world opinion against Mugabe, but the way in which he sought to deflect criticism by turning on Zimbabwe's white elite. Under a policy of "indigenisation", preferential treatment was given to black-run firms in securing government contracts. The policy was designed to enrich the political and military elite.

As a guerrilla leader, Mugabe had promised his supporters land following independence. But Mugabe had no will to carry out a proper resettlement programme.

In August 1997 Mugabe announced he would after the 1998 harvest, to seize half the country's white-owned farms.

This threw Zimbabwe's economy into turmoil. White-owned commercial farms accounted for half of export earnings, but they could no longer borrow. Investors took fright and the IMF withdrew support. Within months the Zimbabwean Dollar halved in value, the stock market had collapsed, and inflation had risen to nearly 50pc.

In 1998 he sent 7,000 troops into Congo to support the corrupt regime of his friend Laurent Kabila against an uprising by Rwandan-backed rebels. He also banned stikes at home. The following year Mugabe faced a more serious challenge from a new Movement for Democratic Change, led by the former trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

In Feb 2000, Mugabe held a referendum on a new constitution and suprisingly lost. His reaction was to allow the invasion of white-owned farms as he unleashed his personal militia - the self-styled "war veterans" _ and his government permitted compulsory seizure of white-owned land without compensation

In 2002 Tsvangirai challenged Mugabe in a presidential poll but was denied victory by violence, threats and vote-rigging.

By the time of the next presidential election in 2008, hyperinflation was so high that prices doubled and redoubled in a single day. Life expectancy for women had fallen to 34 and to 37 for men.

When Tsvangirai won the first round, Mugabe mobilised a terror campaign. Villagers were beaten en masse and told to "vote Mugabe next time or you will die". Relief supplies were used as a tool to coerce votes. Hundreds of opposition organisers were murdered, thousands beaten or tortured. Five days before voting was due to start, Tsvangirai pulled out.

"Zimbabwe is mine," crowed Mugabe, "I will never, never, never, never surrender."

Economic meltdown continued, however, and in 2009 in a deal brokered by South Africa, Mugabe gave in and formed a government of national unity. He remained president, Tsvangirai became prime minister. Repressive laws remained in force.

In 2015 Mugabe announced his intention to run for re-election in 2018, later claiming that he would remain in power "until God says 'come'". But deteriorating health (in 2017 he made three medical trips to Singapore) unleashed a toxic succession battle that escalated as Grace Mugabe emerged as her husband's preferred successor.

Her main rival was Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe's vice-president - a former security chief known as "the crocodile" who was popular with the war veterans.

Mnangagwa, though implicated in human rights abuses in his decades by Mugabe's side, was seen as competent and level-headed and was tipped as the preferred successor candidate of Zimbabwean businessmen and the military, as well as foreign investors.

On November 6, 2017, however, in a move seen as engineered by Grace, he was dismissed by Mugabe and fled to South Africa. A week later, Zimbabwe's military intervened, seizing state TV and blocking roads to the government offices, parliament and the courts in central Harare.

Mugabe was placed under house arrest, while Grace was reported to have fled to Namibia. Later in the month Mnangagwa was sworn in, sparking scenes of jubilation. (Though the mood of optimism was short-lived.)

Mugabe often stated his intention to live to be 100. On his 88th birthday he said: "I have died many times. That's where I have beaten Christ. Christ died once and resurrected once - I am fit as a fiddle."

Robert Mugabe, born February 21 1924, died September 6 2019

© Telegraph

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