Why Mugabe divides opinion

KENT - The recent election of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe as chairman of the African Union, the continental body, has, unsurprisingly, drawn a mixed reception, both within and outside Zimbabwe.

To his supporters, it’s a crowning glory for their hero, but to his opponents, it’s a toxic moment which demonstrates everything that is wrong with the continental body.

Mugabe is a big political character, who divides opinion in a manner that is unparalleled

And everyone seems to have an opinion about Mugabe.

The AU chairmanship is largely a ceremonial position, dutifully rotated among the five geo-political regions of the continent.

It was southern Africa’s turn and with Mugabe as the Sadc chairman, it was long expected that he would take over as chairman of the AU. The surprise would have been if he had been rejected as it would have been an embarrassing snub.

The fact that it was foreseeable and expected has not stopped his political allies and the State media screaming from the proverbial rooftops, announcing it as a major political achievement.

For a country and a leader without much to celebrate in recent times, anything with a hint of positivity must be applauded.

As if to underline its symbolic significance, the ceremonial character of the post has not deterred his opponents from viewing it as a disgusting moment.

He is a hero to some and a villain to others. But how did it come to all this?

He has carved out a niche as the last of the supremely confident and defiant Pan-Africanist leaders from an earlier generation.

He is turning 91 this month but he shows no signs of giving up and still hopes to contest the 2018 elections, when he will be 94.

He was part of the generation of young Africans who led their people in their resistance against colonialism in the sixties and seventies, leading the prosecution of the liberation war in the then Rhodesia, and culminating in a glorious victory in 1980.

At the time, Mugabe surprised everyone, when he announced a policy of national reconciliation long before the more celebrated version of the same policy by Nelson Mandela 1994 when South Africa got freedom.

Mugabe had started it all and his supporters are bitter that he is not given credit for his efforts.

Instead, the Western media lauds Mandela and forgets that it was he, who set the trail many years before.

But back then, in the eighties, Mugabe was a darling of the West, never mind the fact that he stood accused of butchering thousands of black political opponents in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces.

But the tide turned very quickly a couple of decades later, Mugabe raised the tempo in his demands for land redistribution.

He felt cheated when he was told that the former colonial power did not have any legal obligation to support the land reform programme.

At the same time, opposition was also mounting at home as economic conditions tightened.

It was then that he began a radical land reform programme that would define his politics, his image and, indeed, his legacy across the world. He saw the fledgling and popular political opposition MDC party as a mere extension of the Western resistance to his domestic policies.

Unsurprisingly, his reaction to the opposition was equally violent and repressive.

He responded with vitriol against the Western leaders, especially Tony Blair and George W Bush, whom he accused of unfairly targeting him for fighting for his people’s rights. They, in turn, accused him of hurting his own people.

Then targeted sanctions were slapped on him and his political allies. He was not welcome to Europe or the US and a few other countries. But still, he remained defiant.

In fact, he deftly turned the issue on its head and sanctions became the new scapegoat for Zimbabwe’s economic failure.

It was this defiance and his resolute defence of his radical land policy that endeared him to some Zimbabweans and Africans across the continent and beyond.

Sanctions were seen as instruments of victimisation and he drew from the well of sympathy across the continent.

In him, they saw a man who was not easily cowed by the dominant Western forces.

He is one leader who when he attends public gatherings in other African countries is given standing ovations.

One such occasion was the late Mandela’s funeral in December 2013.

Like Mugabe, Mandela adopted a moderate tone to his politics when South Africa gained independence in 1994, promoting reconciliation and preaching forgiveness.

Mandela soon gave up power and retired. In contrast, Mugabe held on to power and became more radical in his demands for land from the minority white farmers.

To Mandela’s admirers, especially in the West, he was a great leader who steered his country very wisely through a difficult patch. But to Mugabe’s supporters, Mugabe will always be the better man, because unlike Mandela, he went a step further and actually reclaimed land and resources for the black Africans, something that they say Mandela never attempted.

Mugabe himself revealed in an interview two years ago that he thought Mandela had been too soft.But it is for this reason that while Mugabe is viewed as a villain in the West, there are many Africans who, despite his shortcomings, still regard him as a champion of their rights. These supporters, of course, choose to ignore the fact that in pursuing his brand of politics, Mugabe has also stood accused of stifling the opposition and disregarding fundamental rights, to maintain his grip on power.

  There remains a view that the West wants to dominate and to dictate affairs in African countries.

One example of this is the contentious debate over gay rights and same-sex marriage.

Then up stands Mugabe, and he issues yet another note of defiance, bashing homosexuality and Western influence in vitriolic terms.

It’s harsh but his voice strikes a chord with the sentiments of many Africans on this issue, as I discovered during the constitution-making process in Zimbabwe. It is not surprising to hear the most ardent critics of Mugabe saying, “He is a bad man and I don’t like his politics, but on this one, on this issue, I agree with him. I think he is right.”

This is the same with Mugabe and his radical land policy. A Zimbabwean opposition supporter will typically say, “The methods they used were not good, and they could have done it in a better way but on land, Mugabe was right.

” The disagreement is not on the principle of land reform and that it had to be done, but on the method with which it was done and the corruption and cronyism that accompanied it.

But to Mugabe’s supporters, those are minor details, the big issue being that the radical process had to be executed, whatever the means and whatever the outcome.

In recent years, Mugabe has extended his radical policies to land-based resources, such as minerals, demanding that foreign companies should give up 51 per cent of their ownership to local partners.

Again there are disputes over the technical details of how to achieve this and allegations of rent-seeking behaviour and corruption, and how this deters foreign investment which is needed to kick-start the failing economy, but it is hard to fault the idea being it.

International legal instruments such as the Convention on Bio-Diversity demand measures for equitable benefit sharing with local people. The message strikes a chord with many Africans, whose countries are resource-rich but find themselves receiving very little while foreign companies remit their profits to the home countries.

The fact is that many years after independence, while Africa has abundant mineral resources, they are mined and shipped raw to Western capitals and more recently, to China and India, where they are processed and sold at a higher value.

Mugabe has of late been preaching the gospel of beneficiation of mineral resources.

He has emerged as a champion of resource nationalism and this endears him very well to many people across the continent and beyond.

In 2005, his government carried out Operation Murambatsvina, a large-scale exercise whereby urban structures were destroyed on the basis that they were illegal.

Livelihoods were destroyed and the exercise was condemned by the United Nations.

In 2008, after suffering defeat to bitter rival, the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai, the response was characterised by unmitigated violence against opposition supporters.

In the end, the AU and Sadc had to intervene to restore legitimacy through a Government of National Unity, whereby Mugabe shared power with Tsvangirai for the next five years.

Before then, Zimbabwe had suffered a serious economic crisis in which the economy went into meltdown and the Zimbabwean currency became worthless.

Many blame Mugabe and his poor economic policies but his supporters will tell you that the economic meltdown was not a consequence of their leader’s actions but that it was caused by Western sanctions. This is a message that has been repeated countless times over the years.

Zimbabweans who oppose his leadership cannot understand what their fellow Africans elsewhere on the continent find so appealing in their leader.

They have been with him as their leader for the last 35 years and they yearn for change.

It is typical of the frustration that his opponents in Zimbabwe feel when they see Mugabe being feted by their fellow Africans who do not have to bear the consequences of his leadership and his policies.

They point to the contradictions between Mugabe’s political rhetoric and what he actually does in practice.

When his daughter Bona, was going to university, he sent her not to an African, let alone Zimbabwean university but to a university in Hong Kong.

Had the West not closed their doors, he might have gladly sent her to one of the great centres of learning in the West.

When she wed last year, most service providers, from wedding planners to caterers were allegedly hired from foreign countries.

People look at this and ask why a man who preaches the otherwise good philosophy of indigenisation fails to implement it in his own affairs?

While many Zimbabweans, including his opponents understand the reasons for land reform, and the need for empowerment, they point to the corruption and cronyism that has been allowed to fester under his leadership.

While many Africans applaud him for taking the land, the poor families in Mazowe are languishing in the middle of the farming season, after being evicted to make way for  his wife’s animals, although she is already the recipient of other farms. Mugabe comes across as a man who cares for his fellow blacks, but when families were flooded last year in Tokwe-Mukorsi and had to be relocated to a make-shift camp,  Mugabe never bothered to pay them a visit.

When similar floods happened this year, he returned from holiday only to fly away to Zambia for the new Zambian President’s inauguration.

His Zimbabwean opponents look at these things and cannot recognise the wise, caring and compassionate leader who is widely revered by their fellow Africans.

Now though, for the next year, he will be the chairman of their continental body.

He warned that while Africa was in need of friends, it did not need those who wished to impose their will upon the continent.

He spoke against imperialism and about the need to ensure Africa benefited from its resources. These are messages that must have received a willing and appreciative audience across the continent.

This may well be his swansong, as he rides into the sunset of a long and controversial (his supporters will say, glorious) political career, but he is determined to leave his stamp. Things have not been rosy at home and he knows it.

He has a messy succession battle to manage within his own severely-divided party.

In his mind, his fight has been against the West, the Africans against him have been mere puppets. 

Now, he must feel that he has defeated them all and he stands at the top of the summit, leading both the regional body, Sadc and the continental body, the AU.

The West cannot avoid him.

He will use the stage to preach his favourite subjects, anti-imperialism, resource nationalism and bashing the West.

This will probably endear him to Africans across the continent. He may not have solutions to Zimbabwe’s pressing economic and social challenges, but he has a lot to say about the continent and its struggles with the West.

*For feedback contact wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk

Comments (3)

what hawgwash.........u must be a zanoid to write such things

dred - 2 February 2015

Are you campaign for Mugabe to get recognition for his policy of national reconciliation or what because I fail to see what else you are wittering about!?

Wilbert Mukori - 2 February 2015

Mugabe was wholly committed to the war, but less so to the warriors, that was the accusation against him in the seventies. He di dnot care how many cadre the Rhodesian killed. He had plenty more. He was and is likewise wholly committed to the revolution, but he could care less for the revolutionaries. That is his contradiction. A perfect man for the job.

Jeff Baxter - 3 February 2015

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