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A belated note: Robert Mugabe’s death at 95 (September 6) was some six decades overdue. He was a thoroughly nasty piece of work. His dictum that “the only white man you can trust is a dead white man” has cost his people dearly, arguably even more so than the dispossessed and racially cleansed white farmers and administrators who had developed Rhodesia into a stable and—by African standards—spectacularly prosperous place.
When a prominent bad person dies, de mortuis nil nisi bonum is no guide to gentlemanly comportment. De mortuis nil nisi bene should apply. It implies that one should not make false claims about the dead, which includes concealment of sordid facts.
Having followed this rule over the decades with Susan Sontag (“The Evil of Banality,” 2004), Richard Holbrooke (“An American Diplomat,” 2010), Fidel Castro (“Into the Dustbin,” 2016) et al.—not to forget John McCain, in extenso, a year ago—my only regret is that I have not had the cause, thus far, to obituarize George Soros, the Clintons, and a few dozen others.
Mugabe was different from them only in form. He was equally contemptuous of liberty, human life, and dignity. He could be deemed a lesser monster than Messrs. Holbrooke or McCain only by virtue of having no capacity to plot wars against faraway lands and mass murder of their citizens: his playground was between the Zambezi and the Limpopo.
Mugabe’s rise as an icon of the independence movement started while he was imprisoned for sedition in 1962 in what was Southern Rhodesia, a British colony enjoying self-government since 1923. Resisting demands from London to accept transition to black majority rule, the Rhodesian Front government in Salisbury, under the leadership of Ian Smith, made a unilateral declaration of independence from the UK (UDI) in November 1965.
The newly-independent Rhodesia was rightly known as the Breadbasket of Africa thanks to its huge agricultural surpluses, most notably maize and wheat. Its African majority was very well fed and governed by African standards. This was predictably unacceptable to Western bien pensants. By the end of the 1960s they were fully committed to the principle of “one man, one vote, once!” which had been applied all over Africa during the previous decade.
In 1972 the first groups of foreign-supported African “nationalists” started a guerrilla war against Smith’s government. They were neatly divided along tribal lines. Upon his release from prison in 1974—a mistake the Smith government would come to regret—Mugabe became the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the military arm of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). It was composed almost exclusively of Shona, Mugabe’s tribe, and financed by China. The rival ZAPU and its military wing, Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), was funded by the Soviets and comprised almost entirely of the rival Ndebele tribe which inhabited the southeast of the country.
Guerrillas targeted vulnerable white farmers and their families, killing hundreds and forcing many survivors to abandon their homesteads. Scores of their suddenly unemployed black hands joined the “freedom fighters,” often under duress. Over the course of the war at least 30,000 people were killed, with white civilians accounting for the highest number of fatalities by far proportionate to their numbers.
All along, Mugabe demanded the dismantling of Rhodesia’s mostly (but not exclusively) white government, the execution of Smith and his “criminal gang,” the seizure of white-owned land without compensation, and the creation of a one-party Marxist state (to be called “Zimbabwe,” after the ancient ruins of the same name). He advocated violence against the whites, referring to them as “blood-suckers” and “sadistic killers.” “Let us hammer [the white man] to defeat,” Mugabe told his supporters in a 1978 radio address. “Let us blow up his citadel. Let us give him no time to rest. Let us chase him in every corner. Let us rid our home of this settler vermin.”
In the end, under pressure from Pretoria, Smith agreed that white minority rule could not be prolonged indefinitely. The 1979 general election enfranchised large numbers of Africans for the first time and led to Bishop Abel Muzorewa—a popular black moderate—becoming Prime Minister of the renamed Zimbabwe Rhodesia. Both Mugabe and Nkomo had boycotted the election. Nevertheless it proved to be a major stepping stone to the Lancaster House Agreement, which was brokered by the British. Mugabe signed it, disappointed that he had not achieved a military victory over the Rhodesian forces. More importantly, he had never intended to observe its key provision: the pledge that white farmers’ property rights would be safeguarded.
On his return to Salisbury in January 1980, Mugabe reconstituted ZANU as a political party: Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). It won the ensuing election by simple virtue of Mugabe’s tribe, Shona, accounting for over two-thirds of the country’s population. Nkomo’s Ndebele in the southeast made up 20 percent, and they were subjected to widespread intimidation by Mugabe’s supporters. Nkomo declared that “the word intimidation is mild. People are being terrorized. It is terror.” Bishop Muzorewa and the whites concurred.
The British, keen to be rid of the problem once and for all, nevertheless declared the February election valid. ZANU-PF secured 63 percent of the vote, giving Mugabe an absolute majority. The new government received substantial Western aid, with the U.S. and British governments hoping that the new state’s stability would aid the transition of South Africa to majority rule. At first Mugabe refrained from turning his fiery Marxist, anti-white rhetoric into specific policies, but not for long. The media was brought under government control within years of his victory. By the late 1980s he had presided over the creation of a Shona ruling elite of mostly semi-educated corrupt thugs eager to take over white-owned houses and farms. Within just three years of Mugabe’s premiership, one-half of Zimbabwe’s 200,000 whites had left.
Mugabe simultaneously proceeded to settle scores with his old rival Nkomo. In February 1981, ZANU-PF supporters within the newly integrated armed forces attacked ZAPU veterans and 300 people were killed. Describing Nkomo as “a cobra in the house” Mugabe sacked him from the government, and seized ZAPU-owned businesses and properties. Mugabe subsequently ordered the army and paramilitary police units—by now Shona-dominated—to crack down on Nkomo’s armed supporters, known as the dissenters. He announced that security officers would be granted immunity for any “extra-legal” actions they may perform in the course of operations.
By January 1983 the notorious Fifth Brigade, trained by the North Koreans and composed of Shonas directly answerable to Mugabe, started a sustained campaign of murder, arson, rape and pillage. The scale and ferocity of violence far exceeded anything seen during the Rhodesian war. Mugabe calmly acknowledged that innocent civilians would be persecuted because “we can’t tell who is a dissident and who is not.” Western governments remained silent, however, and President Reagan even welcomed Mugabe to the White House in 1983.
The campaign of terror became known as the Gukurahundi, a Shona word for “the wind that sweeps away the chaff before the rains.” It killed 20,000 people by most reliable estimates, overwhelmingly civilians. Many years later Mugabe acknowledged that the mass killings had taken place, claiming that it was all “an act of madness... and both sides were to blame.” That was a lie: his ZANU-PF militants were the only culprits. The campaign of terror achieved its political objective in December 1987: Nkomo was forced to sign a Unity Accord, his ZAPU was officially disbanded and its leadership merged into ZANU-PF. This left Mugabe’s party with 99 of the 100 parliamentary seats and effectively turned Zimbabwe into one-party state.
The new puppet assembly promptly declared Mugabe president with unprecedented powers. He was head of state, head of government, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, authorized to dissolve parliament, declare martial law, and run for an unlimited number of terms. It also passed an amendment allowing the government to expropriate white land at a fixed price, while denying owners the right of appeal to the courts. This was the beginning of Zimbabwe’s accelerated road to ruin. Within three years, hundreds of thousands of acres of white-owned farms were duly expropriated, much of it being “leased” to Mugabe’s ministers and senior officials.
By the late 1990s Zimbabwe had become a standard sub-Saharan African state. It was ruled by a megalomaniacal demagogue surrounded by incompetent, violent, and corrupt thugs. Its decaying infrastructure, dysfunctional bureaucracy, collapsing public services, and spreading hunger made many Zimbabweans nostalgic for the ancien regime. By 2000, the country’s living standards and life expectancy were lower than in Ian Smith’s time. But as far as Mugabe was concerned, it was clear who was to blame: he still called on supporters “to strike fear in the hearts of the white man, our real enemy.”
The ongoing collapse started eroding Mugabe’s grip on power. In the June 2000 parliamentary elections the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai won 47% of the vote, in spite of the customary campaign of violence by ZANU-PF supporters. Mugabe tried to regain popularity by encouraging armed gangs to seize the remaining white-owned farms. He promptly issued a decree which empowered the government to seize land without compensation. When Zimbabwe’s High Court ruled that the land invasions were illegal, and the Supreme Court supported the ruling, its chief justice was replaced by a Mugabe loyalist and three additional judges were added to the bench.
The new court immediately reversed the earlier ruling. “The courts can do whatever they want, but no judicial decision will stand in our way,” a delighted Mugabe commented. “My own position is that we should not even be defending our position in the courts. This country is our country and this land is our land ... The white man is not indigenous to Africa. Africa is for Africans, Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans.”
The results were predictable. Maize production fell by four-fifths, from 2.5 million tons in the final years of Rhodesia to less than half a million just a decade later. In the 1970s Rhodesia had arguably had the best-fed black population in Africa. By 2009, three-quarters of the people of Zimbabwe were relying on food aid, the highest proportion of any country in the world at that time. Its GDP declined from $7.4 billion to $3.4 billion in 2005. By 2008 inflation exceeded 100,000 percent, unemployment reached 80 percent; millions of Zimbabweans went abroad in search of livelihood. One-fifth of children attended school, far fewer than in Smith’s days.
In his declining years Mugabe managed to cling to power by manipulating election results and intimidating opponents, although the murderous violence that had accompanied the 2008 election was not to be repeated. He even agreed, for a while, to accept a power-sharing agreement with the opposition in order to stabilize currency. In November 2015 he declared he would run for re-election in 2018, at the age of 94, and was duly named the ZANU-PF candidate.
Two years later, however, Mugabe was no longer his old, self-confidently despotic self. He made a major mistake in early November 2017, when he sacked his first vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. This abrupt move fueled the lingering suspicion among his inner circle of loyalists that he intended to name his universally hated second wife Grace (“Gucci Grace,” 40 years his junior) his designated successor.
This was the last straw even for his old guard. On 15 November 2017, the Army placed Mugabe under house arrest. Four days later he was sacked as ZANU-PF chairman, with Mnangagwa appointed in his place. A week later Mugabe was forced to resign, but not before reaching a deal under which he and his family obtained legal immunity and guarantees that their amassed fortune would remain intact. He died 22 months later in Singapore: a bitter old man still having the gall to complain of the illegality of his ouster.
Mugabe’s obituaries in the Western media were full of nonsense. A charismatic freedom fighter gone bad, a brilliant man full of promise corrupted by power, etc., ad nauseam. He was nothing of the sort. He was just a regular African politician.
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