We have all seen in the news the final stages of the dramatic downfall of Zimbabwe’s corrupt leader of thirty years, Robert Mugabe. But how many of us really know anything about this country’s years of strife, and what led to this moment? Katie succeeds in helping us to understand the rise and fall of this infamous ruler.

Mugabe and the Suffering of Zimbabwe

Robert Mugabe steps down – picture from Nigerian Moniter

Zimbabwe is a nation with a complex and rich history, haunted by both the cruelty of British Colonial rule and now by 37 years at the hands of authoritarian leader Robert Mugabe. Mugabe rose to power as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe from 1980 until 1987 and has been the President from 1987 until his resignation last week on the 21st of November. Although he gained political office in 1980 Mugabe’s influence in Zimbabwe was significant for many decades before that, due to his involvement in African nationalist protests, his imprisonment from 1964-1974 and his leading of the military wing of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), later the ZANU- PF (Patriotic Front) party during the Rhodesian Bush War. Mugabe is a highly controversial figure, dividing public opinion in both Zimbabwe and all around the globe. As one writer for The Black Scholar journal concluded ‘depending on who you listen to … Mugabe is either one of the world’s great tyrants or a fearless nationalist who has incurred the wrath of the West.’

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on 22nd of February 1924 and spent his formative years with his five siblings in Southern Rhodesia’s Zvimba District. Mugabe excelled academically whilst at school but he was a rather quiet and solitary pupil which led to him being frequently taunted by his class mates. This didn’t prevent him from succeeding and in 1949 he enrolled into the University of Fort Hare in South Africa. It was there that Mugabe’s involvement in politics began as he attended African nationalist meetings, joined to African National Congress and there was introduced to Marxist ideas. During this period he was also heavily influenced by the actions of Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian Independence movement and Mugabe has personally described his time at Fort Hare University as the ‘turning point’ in his life. Following this ‘turning point’ Mugabe became involved in the feud between ZANU and Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and simultaneously one of the most influential figures in the fight against white minority rule in Southern Rhodesia. This involvement then led to his arrest in 1964 and his subsequent imprisonment for the following ten years.

Mugabe started his revolutionary activity in 1960, actions which all in modern day Zimbabwe would say began the freeing of the nation from the clasp of the British empire and the tyrannical Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith. Despite this, some Zimbabwean’s now feel that what followed was of no superiority and that Robert Mugabe brought suffering and pain to the people with his government’s failed economic policies and deep rooted corruption. On the other hand, some Zimbabwean’s argue that though the situation in the country is not perfect it is a great improvement on before as the country is no longer ruled by the white minority and instead has been ruled for the last 37 years by a member of its largest ethnic group, the Shona. This is not an insignificant argument and it shouldn’t be dismissed. Although, it is easy for the West and particularly Britain to hold on to the notion that our colonisation of areas of Africa ultimately had positive impacts, this is a very Anglocentric view and in reality the history books show that it was the inhumane and dictatorial nature off colonial rule that crippled the continent. This was no different in Southern Rhodesia and during their younger days of disillusionment with the leadership of the country Mugabe and his revolutionary allies can be more easily sympathised with.

However, this is only one element of Mugabe’s and Zimbabwe’s complicated history. Even in his early days as the ZANU’s general and publicity secretary Mugabe supported aggressive violence against the white minority in order to overthrow them from power. Although on the one hand this seems reasonable as native Rhodesian’s had suffered at the hands of white colonists for decades it sadly says less about the frustration of the people and more about Mugabe’s individual character. His antagonistic and violent nature was not just present during his time as a guerrilla fighter but continued into his Presidency as he encouraged angry mobs to invade and forcefully occupy white owned land, deployed his ‘war veterans’ to carry out violent attacks on supporters of his opponent in the 2008 Zimbabwe presidential election and most disturbingly he turned a blind eye to the 27 murders, 27 rapes, 2466 assaults, and 617 abductions that were carried out by ZANU-PF supporters during the 2000 parliamentary elections. Not only did Mugabe show his anger during his presidency but the characteristics that he overwhelmingly displayed were his lack of empathy and hunger for power.

During Mugabe’s presidency Zimbabwe’s economy dramatically deteriorated with peak hyperinflation in 2008 reaching 100,000%, leading to the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar. Alongside this came unemployment of around 80% which meant that 75% of Zimbabwe’s population was relying on food aid, the highest proportion of any country at that time. This also negatively affected other sectors, with only 20% of children attending school, increasing cholera and HIV/AIDS rates and a rise in poaching driven by the people’s desperation. Meanwhile, Mugabe and his family, most notably is wife Grace, showed off their lavish lifestyle spending money on feasts, elaborate homes and clothes. This created much resentment from the Zimbabwean people with their hatred for Robert and Grace Mugabe intensifying.

Mugabe showed himself to be power obsessed throughout his presidency as he clung onto his position for 37 years despite mounting opposition. When Mugabe received 4.7% less of the 2008 presidential vote than his rival from Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) instead of accepting defeat he ordered violent attacks on MDC supporters resulting in 153 deaths and many gang rapes perpetrated by ZANU-PF supporters. Not only was Robert Mugabe power thirsty it was also evident that his wife Grace was too. She was wildly unpopular with the Zimbabwean people and in recent months they began to fear that Robert Mugabe was preparing to pass on his presidency to her. Therefore, it was after 37 years of tyranny from one person and with the prospect of another 37 years of tyranny from his equally abhorrent wife that the military held a coup d’tat which lead to Mugabe’s resignation. However, though many hope that Zimbabwe will become a free and democratic nation this is sadly highly unlikely. The people have spent century’s being oppressed, at first by a racist white minority and then by an authoritarian dictator of their own. Regrettably, the future for Zimbabwe looks bleak as though one day change will come it is easy to see how that day is incredibly far in the distance.

By Katie Wharton