OPINION: Mugabe is dead, but he has plenty of imitators

Former Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, who died on Friday at the age of 95, was a genuine hero but he failed to deliver the justice he sought for his people. His life story is a warning to all well-meaning authoritarians and the nations willing to tolerate them – a warning that appears to be going unheeded.

It’s also a warning to global leaders who think they can bring developing or undemocratic nations into line with diplomacy and an imposed rulebook. The backlash can be horrifying.

Mugabe grew up bookish and almost friendless in a village that didn’t have electricity. His ambitious mother and a Jesuit priest pushed him to study; he didn’t stop even during the 11 years he spent in prison for his anti-colonialist activism. A teacher and an intellectual, he didn’t initially strive for leadership but rather was thrust into command positions in the nationalist movement that sought to establish black rule in what was then the unrecognized, racist state of Rhodesia. Even during the military phase of the resistance, he wouldn’t wear a uniform, preferring suits and leaving the violent action to others as he plotted and planned.

The 1979 Lancaster House Agreement ended then-Rhodesia’s self-declared independence and established a ceasefire between its government and the two rebel parties, one of which was led by Mugabe. During the negotiations that led to the deal, Lord Carrington, the UK foreign secretary, who presided over the talks, asked Mugabe whether he was bitter. After all, he’d been lawlessly imprisoned and Smith’s government wouldn’t even let him out temporarily to bury his three-year-old son. “I’m bitter with the system, not the people,” Mugabe replied.

That’s what Western leaders wanted to hear: Assurances that after his inevitable victory, he wouldn’t go after his country’s white elite, which made up about 1% of the population but owned 70% of its farmland. Carrington pressured Mugabe to put off land reform by 10 years, promising UK and US aid to buy out land owned by white farmers on a voluntary basis; Mugabe was reluctant to sign up to that at first but yielded to end the conflict. In 1980, he won a British-supervised election, becoming Zimbabwe’s first prime minister. Initially he kept his promise of inclusiveness and respect for property rights.

Still, it was a revolutionary force that had brought him to power; people who felt they’d won the war were impatient for some spoils and clamoring about injustice. Mugabe, a skillful manipulator, maneuvered restless allies and rivals into submission, at times unleashing violence on tribal areas that supported them. Loyalists had to be rewarded, favors repaid. Western funds meant for buying out farmland got diverted – and they were never sufficient to right the fundamental injustice of land distribution.

Veterans fretted, and Mugabe had increasing trouble holding on to power. In 2000, Mugabe allowed them to take over white farmers’ land without compensation. Violence and devastation ensued. The Zimbabwean economy, dependent on commercial farming, died a painful death, in part thanks to Western sanctions imposed in response to the farmer evictions. One of history’s worst hyperinflation incidents, with prices increasing 79,600,000,000% in November, 2008, is part of Mugabe’s legacy. But the economic devastation was also the consequence of the 1979 compromise which allowed Zimbabwe’s native population to claim power but not the wealth that had been taken from it by colonisers.

Through it all, Mugabe continued playing the intellectual ascetic, even as he and his cronies stole the country’s wealth. By the mid-2000s, it was clear that the Zimbabwean leader had squandered the hopes of the liberation movement, building a typical corrupt one-party regime that survived through violence and manipulation and defied the laws of economics as long as a small elite had what it needed. Variations on this theme long have been common in Africa, but now they’re also a kind of norm in other parts of the world.

Mugabe got old; he was increasingly falling asleep at official functions. Emmerson Mnangagwa, his favorite enforcer and on-and-off candidate for succession, ousted him with the military’s support in 2017. His regime is every bit as unprincipled and uninspired as Mugabe’s in his sunset years.

A man of uncommon intelligence and tenacity, Mugabe the Marxist idealist was undone by his inability to restore the justice he sought. He was defeated by his own allies and enforcers who wanted everything for themselves – and by the Western world’s indifference to redressing colonial-era wrongs. 

As a Russian citizen, I see many echoes of Mugabe’s story in what happened to my country since the Soviet Union fell.

In July, when Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin moved to put down protests caused by the authorities’ decision to keep opposition candidates out of this weekend’s city government election, he accused anti-Kremlin activists of plotting an illegitimate power grab: “Should those who yell the loudest have power? We’re not living in Zimbabwe, after all!”

Sobyanin’s contemptuous words are evidence of Mugabe’s woeful legacy; more people will remember him as an aging, bungling, murderous dictator than as a revolutionary hero. But in a sense, Russians, Turks, Brazilians, even, to some extent, Americans and Brits live in their own versions of Zimbabwe these days, governed by inept authoritarians whose manipulations have long lost any connection to the national interest. Mugabe is dead, but, ironically, his unwitting imitators are multiplying.

Bershidsky is a Bloomberg columnist. Views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Fin24.