Making of an African Dictatorship: The Case of Robert Mugabe

James N. Kariuki*

 President MugabeThe elongated plight of contemporary Zimbabwe is nothing short of a crime against humanity; it should not be happening in the 21st century. Yet, it may be feeble-minded of us to believe that the country’s woes are due to one ‘madman’, Robert Mugabe. Great Britain is just as implicated in the disaster.

There is a widely held view that Mugabe will never voluntarily surrender power because, if he ever does, the sins of his past will come back to haunt him. There is convincing evidence for clinging to that view.

Memories of Zaire’s former President Mobutu Sese Seko linger. He died and was buried in Morocco in 1997 as a dejected, tormented and stateless person. Similarly, Mugabe is mindful of the betrayed and deeply humiliated Charles Taylor. After a long trial at The Hague for his wrongdoing as Liberia’s leader he is serving a 50 year sentence languishing in a British jail.

 Equally unnerving are the woes of Frederick Chiluba in Zimbabwe’s neighboring Zambia. He relinquished power democratically to his former protégé, Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, fully assured of exemption from prosecution for his missteps as head of state. However, it did not take long for that immunity to fizzle; Chiluba endured an agonizingly long international case of graft before his death in June 2011.

 Mugabe has been in power for much longer than Taylor or Chiluba. The winding road that he has travelled is much longer, in all likelihood much bloodier and more intriguing.  He owes it to himself to shield the skeletons in his closet as long as he can. After all, who on the African political landscape can be entrusted with such an awesome task? Poor Robert Mugabe is a caged man: there is no place to hide except in Zimbabwe under his iron rule.

Mugabe and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair Mugabe has been tried in absentia and found guilty in the conscience of much of the Western world. The case against him, we are told, is so overwhelming that his political rhetoric should be dismissed with the contempt that it deserves.

 While regretting Zimbabwe debacle, another perspective insists that Mugabe must be granted another, more open-minded hearing.  How can the national hero for the liberation of Zimbabwe simply turn around and tear the same country to shreds? 

 A Mugabe protagonist once protested that, short of a shooting war, international economic sanctions are the worst thing that can happen to any country. They are punitive measures that kill, starve and impoverish innocent people.  Zimbabwe has been under such Britain-sponsored international sanctions for fifteen years. 

 It is generally accepted that the British mindset towards Zimbabwe is driven by bitterness over Mugabe’s land reforms policy. The clear objective of that policy is to repossess white-owned land in Zimbabwe and redistribute it to the ‘rightful owners’, indigenous Africans. Since the launch of the so-called ‘forceful land-seizures,’ relations between the Mugabe regime and Britain have deteriorated from bad to worse.

 In his view, Mugabe is locked in a deadly fight to affirm Zimbabwe’s right to engage in a land redistribution scheme. He faces an adamant opponent in Britain whose interest is defined by the fact that the disputed white farms were owned by their own kith and kin in Zimbabwe. There is no room for negotiations; it is a classic case of zero-sum-game.

 Mugabe abhors the British in part for deeply personal reasons. And he sees political opponents in Zimbabwe as proxies of the British on a mission to execute Anglo-American neo-colonial agenda. In Mugabe’ view, that mission is hardly intended to affirm democracy, it is to get rid of Mugabe by whatever means necessary and give back the repossessed farms to the whites. Such an eventuality Mugabe finds impossible to contemplate. Indeed he considers any hints towards that goal treasonable.

 To Mugabe, relinquishing power to organized opposition is tantamount to abdication of his duty to the people of Zimbabwe. He was in the trenches during fifteen years of liberation struggle from the claws of racist Ian Smith. Zimbabwe’s freedom was bought with the blood of patriots, hundreds of thousands of them. To protect and safeguard that freedom from neo-colonialism, penetrating Africa through indigenous politicians, is not dictatorship, it is the ultimate form of patriotism.

 This perspective may sound like pro-Mugabe and self-serving rhetoric, but it strikes a sympathetic chord among African political elite of all ages. In his days of political glory, the now-deposed ANC Youth League President, Julius Malema, advocated nationalization of mines and land repossession in SA. Those ideas derived inspiration from Mugabe’s actions in Zimbabwe. Was this political ‘Black brotherhood’ syndrome in action?

 Mugabe is widely condemned for the collective pain visited upon his people. He dismisses such reasoning by insisting that his actions are directed at the enemies of all Zimbabweans. To the extent that the Movement for Democratic Change is seen as an ‘agent’ of forces external to Zimbabwe, it is portrayed as the enemy of Zimbabwe, its members as traitors, not innocent servants of Zimbabwe.

 Prof-James-KariukiFinally, it is the West that chose collective punishment against Zimbabweans. By imposing economic sanctions, the United Kingdom launched a form of collective punishment that triggered the meltdown of Zimbabwe economy and its vitality as a state. This was the ultimate form of human rights violation that did not discriminate between the guilty and the innocent. 

 The people of Zimbabwe certainly deserve better. Meanwhile, we are left with an intriguing question: Was Mugabe born a dictator or did Britain make him into one?

 **James N. Kariuki is Professor of International Relations (Emeritus) and an independent writer.  He is based in South Africa. Views expressed in the blog Global Africa are his.

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