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Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s first post-independence leader, has died. The 95-year-old was periodically receiving hospital treatment in Singapore for ill health and old age. His death was announced by his successor and erstwhile deputy, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, via Twitter.
Describing Mugabe as an “an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people”, Mnangagwa eulogised that “his contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten. May his soul rest in eternal peace.” Reactions to the divisive leader that once symbolized Zimbabwe’s independence have been varied.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed similar valorising sentiments, announcing that “South Africans join the people and government…in mourning the passing of a liberation fighter and champion of Africa’s cause against colonialism…inspired our own struggle against apartheid.” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta stated that he would “…remember [him] as a man of courage who was never afraid to fight for what he believed in even when it was not popular”.
While sympathy was expressed by the UK Prime Minister’s spokeswoman, she explained that “we of course express our condolences to those who mourn but know that for many he was a barrier to a better future.” Herein lies the fundamental problem: while Mugabe’s reputation as a revolutionary will be forever remembered, his controversial enactment of policies and autocratic leadership has left a confusing impression. As a Zimbabwean war veteran explained, Mugabe “did some good to try and protect the country’s natural resources, for that he was a great man, but there was a lot of autocratic manipulation that we witnessed.”
Mugabe won overwhelmingly in Zimbabwe’s 1980 elections, and seven years later, he was bestowed with the Presidency. The former teacher rose to popularity premised on a political platform to empower the Zimbabwean people from a long history of colonialist oppression. The legitimated logic of white supremacy – which benefited the then colony of Southern Rhodesia and its white minority – continued to inflict significant transgenerational sufferances for the country’s black majority.
Mugabe presented himself as the strongest advocator of black independence: he was a figure who would confront the challenges of reforming the deeply scarred state by acting upon Zimbabwean’s best interests. These were motivated by self-determination principles, Marxism and economic liberalist policies.
In leading the ‘Pride of Africa’, Mugabe’s administration was revered internationally for its reconciliation attempts with white Rhodesian settlers, including a concerted effort to expand and reform of the state’s healthcare and educational systems. Zimbabwe had become a symbol of liberation and acted as a catalyst for similar pan-African movements.
While he led the country through a prosperous period of economic growth and infrastructural development, whatever accomplishments Mugabe claimed were overshadowed by the corruption and the human rights abuses that defined his administration. His violent inclinations were evident early in the Gukurahundi massacres, a failure for the international community who ignored the ethnic cleansing of more than 20,000 people in the Matabeleland province.
Over several long decades, Mugabe’s refusal to cede or share power defined his eventual embodiment as a dictator, notably illustrated in his violent authorization that forcibly seized farms from white landholders. Zimbabweans experienced the highest inflation rate in the world and one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS and unemployment, all while having a diminished life expectancy (average of 35 years).
Neither international punishment nor criticism seemed to concern Mugabe, and it was not until 2017 when the 93-year-old was finally ousted by his own party. Zimbabweans took to the streets to celebrate the fall of Mugabe’s 37 years in office, declaring that “…it [is] a new era. It is history in the making. The people are free”.
Mugabe’s earlier fight against colonial order is undoubtedly of historical importance. What remains is a bitter legacy: the once revolutionary, freedom fighter, turned ruthless authoritarian, responsible for demobilizing and oppressing the very people whom he had initially sought to empower.