The Land That Robert Mugabe Left Behind

The death of Robert Mugabe, the deposed tyrant of Zimbabwe, compels comment.

Rarely has a national hero so betrayed the hopes of his people, with cruelty and corruption that defy imagination.

The Zimbabwe that Robert Mugabe left behind can hardly even be called a country anymore. It is not a functioning nation, but a realm unto itself of poverty, disease, hunger and violence, an expanse of misery within legally defined borders. How did it happen?

The BBC found this salient indicator: “One statistic sums up what Robert Mugabe did for his people: At independence in 1980, the average life expectancy for a Zimbabwean was about 60 years old; by 2006, that had dropped to 37 for men and 34 for women, the shortest in the world.”

Tuberculosis and malaria ran rampant. Cholera fatality rates have been 10 times the global norm. During Mugabe’s reign, a quarter of the population fled the country.

Historians will probably always debate to what extent any human being shaped events or was merely the product of his times, an instrument for working out the conflict between forces much greater than any individual. Yet, in the case of Mugabe, at least at this stage of things, it may be said that the ruin of his country was indeed his doing.

“We are not going to make the same mistake the rest of Black Africa has made,” Mugabe declared in an interview with Newsweek in the late 1970s. “We are going to learn from their mistakes.” He promised that his government would not supplant an oppressive white regime with an oppressive black regime, and that he stood for reconciliation between the races.

“Yesterday I fought you as an enemy, [but] today you have become a friend and ally,” said Mugabe in his inaugural speech in 1980. But when his political supremacy was challenged, numerous friends and allies became enemies, to be obliterated. Anyone who opposed Mugabe or even showed signs of disloyalty was marked for imprisonment, torture, death. When Joshua Nkomo rose as a popular opposition leader, Mugabe sought to secure Marxist, one-party rule by unleashing the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade onto Nkomo’s stronghold in Matabeleland, where they massacred some 20,000 of his tribal supporters.

This was followed by a ruthless campaign to oust white Zimbabweans from their farmland. The notorious leader, Chenjerai Hunzvi, persecuted white farmers, and called himself “Zimbabwe’s biggest terrorist.” The result was not the promised redistribution of land to the dispossessed, but a general collapse of agriculture, Zimbabwe’s largest earner of foreign currency.

Veronica Madgen and her husband fled to the U.K. after their farm, one of the largest, was invaded by Mugabe’s hordes. “The tractors [were] being burnt, the motorcycles [were] being burnt, stones [were being] thrown through the window… It was very difficult to actually come to terms with what was happening,” she told the BBC.

“I was sad for him and his family, because for the first 20 years he governed that country, he was a good leader, until that threat of losing that election got hold of him and he turned.”

And then in the late 1990s came the ultimate fiscal debacle — the mass printing of currency. The term hyperinflation does not come near to capturing a reality in which the exchange rate for the Zimbabwe dollar was Z$35 quadrillion to $1! (A quadrillion has 15 zeroes.) By 2009, the country mainly adopted the U.S. dollar and the South African rand as an antidote, but that failed too. In June of this year, the Zimbabwe dollar was brought back abruptly in an attempt to effect stability in a chaotic situation. But it hasn’t gone down well with people for whom the national currency is a synonym for worthlessness.

A Daily Telegraph report in late July described Zimbabwe as “a perfect economic storm of inflation, food shortages, and water and energy blackouts [that] has left the country on the brink of a disaster comparable to post-World War One Germany or Russia following the Soviet collapse.”

Mugabe’s death, at age 95 after years of failing health, elicited two types of reaction, often side-by-side: praise for his leadership in the war that transformed Rhodesia into Zimbabwe, and condemnation for the crimes he subsequently visited on the people of his country.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, the current president of Zimbabwe and one of those who ousted the old dictator, declared Mugabe a “national hero” and ordered days of mourning before the burial.

Deputy Information Minister Energy Mutodi, of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, told the BBC the party was “very much saddened” by his death. “He’s a man who believed himself, he’s a man who believed in what he did, and he is a man who was very assertive in whatever he said. This was a good man,” he said.

George Walden, one of the British negotiators at the Lancaster House Agreement in 1979 that ended white-minority rule, called Mugabe a “true monster.” The agreement “turned out rather well … and looked good for a while,” but Mr. Mugabe later became “a grossly corrupt, vicious dictator,” he said in a BBC interview.

In fact, Robert Mugabe’s emergence as a brutal dictator should not have come as such a surprise. Even before he became president in 1980, the Atlantic noted, “he locked up, tortured, and assassinated members of his movement whom he suspected of loyalty to other guerrilla factions.”

It can be said that there were two Mugabes, a freedom fighter and idealist who wanted the best for his homeland, and a man who would stop at nothing to get and keep power, even at the cost of destroying the country he professed to love. Evidently, the evil Mugabe was always there, waiting in the shadows to take over should the good Mugabe fail to deliver the goods. And that is what happened.

Perhaps now the people of Zimbabwe will begin to make a better life, freed from the grip of its founder.