If you were surprised to see some of the tearful farewells from those worst affected by the lifelong policies of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, you aren’t alone. Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years after helping free the country from British colonial rule. Mugabe was very much the central figure in then-Rhodesia’s struggle for freedom.
The African world rejoiced at his success, and then watched him plunge the country into every economic and human rights disaster there is.
At the end of the 1970s, African colonialism was taking its dying breaths. Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia, was one of the last remnants of the African colonial era, where the minority white population ruled over the majority black population with an iron fist. The struggle to correct this resulted in the 15-year Rhodesian Bush War that saw thousands of Zimbabweans die at the hands of Rhodesian armed forces. The central figure to emerge from that struggle was Robert Mugabe, a charismatic freedom fighter and former college professor who idolized Mohandas Gandhi who started his firebrand career giving speeches in his home country.
After spending years in prison for sedition in Rhodesia, he left for neighboring Mozambique to join the militant wing of the struggle for freedom, the Zimbabwe African National Union. After the leaders of ZANU were assassinated by the Rhodesian government, Mugabe quickly rose to the top of its ranks. Rhodesia soon realized the writing on the wall, as Mugabe and other groups sent more insurgents into Rhodesia faster than the Rhodesians could kill or capture them. In the election that followed the political stalemate, Mugabe was victorious and became Prime Minister in 1980.
Mugabe with Joshua Nkomo at the Constitutional Conference on the future of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia at Lancaster House in London.
He renamed the country Zimbabwe and the capital Harare. He also expanded educational opportunities to most of the population. In 1987, he and his ZANU-PF party amended the Zimbabwean constitution and installed himself as Executive President, a new position he made for himself while his one-party dominated the Parliament. Mugabe became just one more African strongman. Mugabe betrayed his own revolution.
Although he was an educated man, he was not fit to rule an entire country on his own. After sending military forces into the countryside to root out dissent, Zimbabwe found itself deeply in debt and a mineral sector in virtual collapse. The value of its currency began to drop, and Mugabe began to exploit the ethnic differences in his country to stay in power, a textbook dictatorship move. The wealthy and educated began to flee the country, and by 2000 the economy was in freefall. Hyperinflation became synonymous with the Zimbabwean dollar. He created a repressive police state in order to stay in power, while stripping the rights of everyone, not just white farmers.
Mugabe died in Singapore on Sept. 6, 2019. He was 95. He will still be buried in the country he fought to loot for 37 years.
Even after the total collapse of the Zimbabwean economy, widespread corruption, and Mugabe’s brutal suppression of all opposition, Mugabe remained in power. He and his inner circle of cronies stole the revenues from the country’s mineral wealth while stealing elections and killing the opposition. Finally, after 30-plus years of brutality, Western powers slapped sanctions on him, the country, and anyone caught doing business with Zimbabwe. Yet only after he began to groom his second wife, Grace, to take his position after he died, did Zimbabweans organize his ouster. When he died, he was still working to undermine the government in Harare that had succeeded him.
So while Robert Mugabe was an undisputed liberating force for so many black Rhodesians-turned-Zimbabweans, along with those affected by the subsequent anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements that came after his success, he was also responsible for 37 years of pillaging the country he fought to liberate.