The two faces of Robert Mugabe

The death of Zimbabwe’s strong-man president in 2019 revived memories of both his triumphs and his tyranny. BBC World Affairs Correspondent Mike Thomson explores the paradoxical nature of a freedom fighter who became a despot

Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe inspects troops at the opening of parliament in 2000. By then, opposition was being violently suppressed (AFP Contributor/Getty Images)

The two biggest public celebrations in Zimbabwe during the life of Robert Gabriel Mugabe bookended each end of his long political career. The first marked the inauguration of the heroic freedom fighter as the first black prime minister of independent Zimbabwe in April 1980 after a landslide election victory. The second followed 37 years later, after the increasingly despotic and frail leader was deposed in an army coup. It’s hard to be sure which was the most celebrated.

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It’s as if there were two Mugabes. The younger one, who led a seven-year bush war against white minority rule of what was then Rhodesia, was forgiving in victory. Despite having been incarcerated for over a decade, the nation’s new prime minister declared: “If you were my enemy, you are now my friend. If you hated me, you cannot avoid the love that binds me to you and you to me.”

The minority white population, who had suppressed the black majority for so long, were told that they were welcome to stay. The former bush fighter had turned into a unifying statesman.

During his early years in power Mugabe, who had a life-long love of books, ploughed state money into schools. By the 1990s, Zimbabwe – at that time the bread basket of southern Africa – boasted the region’s highest literacy rates.

But by 1983, signs of the ‘other’ Mugabe had become visible. Intent on crushing the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), the opposition party led by his nationalist rival Joshua Nkomo, he sent troops into its stronghold of Matabeleland, where massacres left perhaps 30,000 dead. Mugabe denied responsibility for the slaughter, and much of the world seemed to take him at his word.

The full transformation from magnanimous Mugabe to his monstrous twin gathered pace after the death of his first wife, Sarah (known as Sally), born in the Gold Coast, in what’s now Ghana. This metamorphosis accelerated after his second marriage, to a fiery, acquisitive women later nicknamed ‘Gucci Grace’. The couple grew rich from a system riddled with corruption and state-sponsored violence.

Hyperinflation had reached 79,600,000,000% per month

Land reform was a particularly thorny issue. In 1980, some three-quarters of Zimbabwe’s agricultural land was owned by white people, who comprised just 5% of the population. In the 1990s, Mugabe – who had become president in 1987 – began the compulsory requisition of white-owned farms without compensation. In large part they were doled out to party officials, generals and veterans of the bush war, many of whom had no experience of agriculture. Before long, most of these once highly productive farms lay neglected, and the country’s economy went into free fall.

By late 2008, hyperinflation had reached 79,600,000,000% per month. There were extreme shortages of just about everything, and the Zimbabwean dollar was virtually worthless. I recall a sign in a public toilet around this time that said it all: “Toilet paper only to be used in this toilet – no cardboard, no cloth, no newspapers, no Zim dollars.”

On the outskirts of Harare, I came across an overcrowded orphanage run by a tearful nun. She told me that many mothers were so poor that they could not feed their children and were abandoning them. “We found a child in a plastic bag near a chicken farm, dumped on a heap of garbage,” she told me. “He was left to die, but survived. Another baby was found in a tree here. She was badly bitten by ants, and died after two days.”

At this time, Mugabe’s brutal suppression of all who opposed him reached new levels. Intent on stopping journalists reporting on the bloodshed, he banned most foreign media organisations. The BBC was deemed particularly unwelcome, and its reporters were threatened with long jail terms if found in the country. I was one of several who defied the ban and went in undercover.

We were far from the only people living like fugitives. In late March 2008, Mugabe’s security forces used appalling violence to crush protests following the close-run presidential election. With no outright winner, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of the contest before the run-off ballot in June, claiming that he feared for his life and those of his followers. Months later, I met many beaten and tortured protesters still hiding in safe houses, afraid to go home.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the army coup that finally ousted Mugabe in November 2017 was met with more cheers than tears. The streets of Harare erupted in euphoric celebrations.

History prefers characters to be either heroes or villains, not amalgams of both

Even after the 95-year-old former president died on 6 September 2019, the ill feeling and divisions continued. His family wanted him buried in his birthplace, Kutama – but the very generals who had deposed him now hailed him as a freedom-fighting hero, and insisted on Heroes’ Acre, a hill at the edge of Harare reserved for fallen champions of the anti-colonial liberation struggle. In September 2019, the family finally won that argument – and he was buried in a steel-lined coffin under a layer of concrete.

It seems likely that, given time, only one of the two Mugabes will be remembered, the many sins of the latter-day despot left buried in the memories of past generations who suffered for so long. History prefers characters to be either heroes or villains, not amalgams of both.

While the once-poor, studious carpenter’s son may have been deeply flawed, he was also a freedom-fighting independence hero who stood up to the west. For many Africans, that last quality will likely compensate for the rest.

Mike Thomson is a BBC World Affairs Correspondent who reported undercover extensively from Zimbabwe in 2008–09

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This article was taken from issue 19 of BBC World Histories magazine