Despot who destroyed a nation

Published by The Daily Mail (7th September, 2019)

Back in 2009, a diplomatic delegation arrived in Harare to see President Robert Mugabe. They found the despot, in his 80s and reportedly cancer-ridden, snappily dressed in his usual bespoke single-breasted dark suit yet as sharp-witted as ever.

Zimbabwe, once the ‘breadbasket of Africa’, was collapsing in one of the most shocking peacetime implosions of any modern country. Hyper-inflation was raging, unemployment was rife, people were starving, public services non-existent and corruption, brutality and bloodshed a way of life for millions.

The visit by EU diplomats — seven years in the making — was greeted with a trademark Mugabe rant in the media about ‘bloody whites’ interfering in Zimbabwean affairs.

Yet one incident stood out, according to those present. ‘A strong young man entered with a bowl and pitcher of water on a silver tray,’ they reported. ‘He knelt in front of Mugabe, who made a show of washing his hands with the subservient man at his feet.’

The message was clear: the Marxist liberation leader once lionised by the West was demonstrating his power to former colonial masters in a parody of a medieval potentate, oblivious to the suffering of his people.

The diplomats were horrified: ‘It showed that Mugabe had lost the plot of normal human interaction and the responsibility of leaders towards their people,’ said one.

Now this monstrous man, who accumulated a fortune as his people were plunged into poverty, has died aged 95 after a slow decline in a Singapore hospital.

His was a life etched in blood, with a ruthless focus on power that used starvation as a tool of policy and oversaw plundering of his nation on an epic scale.

Those who did not bend to his will were beaten, raped, tortured and killed, while his final years in power before being ousted by his own army in 2017 were scarred by in-fighting as his second wife and closest cronies fought for the succession. In the end the battle was won by Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former spy chief nicknamed The Crocodile.

Yesterday, Mnangagwa paid hollow tribute to the man he ousted, an ‘icon of liberation…who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people’.

Yet Mugabe’s legacy to Zimbabwe is a country left in abject ruin by his 37 years in office.

He inherited a nation famed for its agriculture, yet he drove out the white farmers and destroyed the economy. It shrank by half in just nine years at start of this century amid the second worst hyper-inflation in history, with prices doubling every 24 hours.

Despite all the economic woes, he insisted on decadent birthday celebrations, such as his 91st in which there was feasting on a baby elephant and buffalo with dancing, poetry, beauty parades and football competitions. His cake, meanwhile, weighed the same in kilograms as his age.

Little wonder, then, there were wild celebrations when the army led a coup in November 2017 to overthrow Mugabe and his detested wife, so infamous for her extravagant shopping sprees in the most exclusive shops in London, Paris and Rome that she was known as ‘Gucci Grace’, or simply ‘Dis-Grace’.

Yet for all his savagery, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was far from the stereotype of an African dictator. He was not a buffoon like Uganda’s Idi Amin, nor a clown like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

This was a man who was cold, calculating and very clever — with seven degrees, several of which he gained in prison.

He was personally frugal, ferociously hard-working and fastidious; even in his later years he rose before dawn, performed yoga and abstained from breakfast.

To understand this enigmatic dictator, one needs to appreciate three aspects of his life: his lonely childhood, his love for his first wife and his schizophrenic relationship with Britain, the country he at once loathed and admired.

Mugabe was born in 1924, the third of six children. His father was a carpenter and his mother a teacher in Kutama, a village 50 miles north of the capital Harare.

When he was ten, his father ran away with a younger woman. It affected him badly. He developed into an intense child, a swot who spent his free time reading books.

He had few friends, although one described him as a loner and something of a despot even when young: ‘Either you agreed with him or you crossed his path.’ Many more would bear testimony to this over subsequent decades.

An Anglo-Irish priest named Jerome O’Hea became a father figure who encouraged his studies. It was he who instilled in the youngster the anachronistic idea that to be an Englishman was ‘to win the lottery of life’.

After flirting with becoming a Catholic priest, Mugabe trained as a teacher. He won a scholarship to the all-black university of Fort Hare in South Africa, where an emerging generation of leaders learned about human rights and democracy.

Among fellow students was Nelson Mandela; in later years, some speculated it was jealousy at the world’s admiration for the noble South African that fuelled Mugabe’s desire to prove he was the true liberation hero.

In 1958, as rumblings of independence spread across Africa, Mugabe went to lecture in Ghana. There he met Sally Hayfron, a fellow teacher, fierce ideologue and the biggest influence on his life, whom he married three years later. After Mugabe took power, she became known as ‘Comrade Sally’ or ‘Amai’ (the mother of the nation) and his closest adviser.

Many date the downfall of Zimbabwe to the loss of her calming presence. She died from kidney failure in 1992 but had been replaced in his bed before her death by Grace, an avaricious former secretary, 40 years younger than her husband.

That, though, was in the future. On his return from Ghana, Mugabe immersed himself in politics under Joshua Nkomo, leader of the main nationalist party. People who knew Mugabe then described him as thoughtful and sensitive, though quick to anger.

But after the party was banned in 1963 Mugabe broke with Nkomo, arguing only armed struggle could overthrow the minority white government. He set up the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) with two fellow militants.

One year later Mugabe was imprisoned, following a speech in which he attacked the premier, Ian Smith, as a cowboy. He spent the next 10 years in detention or restricted in his movements.

During that time Nhamodzenyika — his only child with Sally — died of cerebral malaria. Mugabe pleaded for permission to bury his son but the Smith regime refused, spitefulness he never forgot.

Sally moved to London, living on a pittance from Christian Aid and copying out textbooks by hand to send to her husband.

By the time he was freed in 1974, he had some more degrees — although he once boasted he also had ‘a degree in violence’ — and was describing himself as a ‘Marxist-Leninist-Maoist’.

Then he took to the warpath. Although Mugabe never carried a gun, he helped establish guerrilla training camps in Mozambique and directed raids on southern Rhodesia, a pariah state after Ian Smith’s declaration of independence (UDI) from Britain. By 1979 the war of liberation had claimed 30,000 lives and Mugabe had risen through the revolutionary ranks. The bloodshed led to a deal in London at Christmas 1979 known as the Lancaster House agreement, which forced the unsavoury Smith to step down.

Zimbabwe had gained its independence — and Mugabe quickly turned on his former boss, the obese Nkomo. In the subsequent election, Mugabe excluded opposition parties from areas Nkomo ran and told rallies: ‘If we do not win, we go back to war.’

He gained power with an absolute majority — but Nkomo quibbled over the results. In response, Mugabe unleashed North Korean-trained army units to massacre thousands of Ndebele tribespeople in Matabeleland in the mid-1980s, obliterating his rival’s power base and forcing him into exile.

At the time, Western nations meekly accepted Mugabe’s justification that the bloodshed was a result of South Africa’s attempt to destabilise Zimbabwe.

There was enormous goodwill towards him from Western leaders after Smith’s apartheid rule — and in his first decade, with Sally at his side, he opened more schools and hospitals than any other African leader, boosting literacy to among the best on the continent.

When his wife fell ill, he would sometimes accompany her to London for treatment, dropping in to Downing Street to debate world affairs with Margaret Thatcher. She slugged whisky while he sat in an armchair sipping water.

But in the early nineties, after the end of the Cold War, financial support from the West and the Soviet Union dried up across the developing world — and Sally died.

He married Grace Marufu, who had already borne him two children despite his professed Catholicism. From the start she was more focused on shopping than politics, spending £60,000 in one Paris store alone, and a reported £4million on her daughter Bona’s wedding at the Mugabe’s £8million, 25-bedroom Harare mansion in 2014.

As economic problems mounted, the president became ever more autocratic, more suspicious, more fearful. He retreated back into his shell and he concentrated on finding ways to retain power.

Zimbabwe’s white minority – representing less than one per cent of the population -were the fall-guys.

Some 4,000 white farmers owned nearly half the land, displacing black citizens on to poorer soil – and he knew his resentment of them was widely shared.

Arguing that Britain had reneged on the Lancaster House promises about funding land redistribution, he declared in 1997 that 1,500 white-owned farms were to be confiscated without compensation. He reportedly claimed 13 of them for himself.

Tony Blair, ruling out compromise, foolishly spoke of ‘regime change’; Clare Short, the international development secretary, made matters worse by sympathising as an Irishwoman over British colonisation; other ministers responded with insults. An increasingly paranoid president saw all this — and an attempted ‘arrest’ in a London street by gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell in protest at Mugabe’s homophobia and human rights abuses — as a declaration of war.

The International Monetary Fund forced him to shelve his first land grab after the Zimbabwe dollar crashed and the army had to quell riots. But one year later, the exchequer drained by secretly sending 12,000 troops to fight in the Congo — in theory to protect its president, in reality to loot its mineral wealth — inflation was soaring and half the country was unemployed.

When proposals for a new constitution to entrench his position were voted down in a referendum, Mugabe backed ‘unofficial’ seizure of white-owned farms by violent gangs of self-styled ‘war veterans’.

Within two years tobacco, which had brought in 40 per cent of Zimbabwe’s foreign currency earnings, could no longer even be harvested in many areas. Mugabe had become ‘almost a caricature of all the things people think black African leaders do,’ commented Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Unemployment left seven in ten workers jobless; scores more fled over the border in search of a better life. Two-thirds of those that remained were reliant on food aid.

Doctors tore down curtains in health clinics to make blankets. The Aids epidemic ripped through the starving population. Life expectancy dipped to among the lowest in the world.

Inflation soared, reaching an incredible 230 million per cent in 2008 and forcing Zimbabwe to abandon its currency after issuing 10 trillion dollar notes.

Morgan Tsvangirai, a courageous former union boss who became leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), emerged as a serious rival — only to be arrested, beaten, intimidated and even charged with treason. MDC members had party initials carved into their backs and were mutilated with broken bottles. Women associated with the MDC were systematically raped. Complaining to the police was futile — it was often the officers who carried out the assaults.

After losing the presidential election in 2008, a weary Mugabe was ready to quit. He was persuaded to stay in power by his generals, who fixed the vote count to ensure a second round then unleashed a wave of grotesque violence on their rivals.

Foreign diplomats eventually forced Mugabe into uneasy coalition with his MDC foes by threatening to send him to the International Criminal Court. Tsvangirai, who died last year, lost his beloved wife in a suspicious 2009 car crash.

Many of Mugabe’s enemies died in this way. Meanwhile, leaked diplomatic cables claimed that even in 2001 Mugabe had assets worth more than £800million, including secret accounts stashed around the world and rumours he owned a castle in Scotland.

In his latter years, for all the hair dye and Botox, Mugabe looked frail and stumbled at some public appearances, reading out the wrong speech once at the opening of parliament.

In 2013 he won rigged elections and, despite increasing decrepitude, talked of standing for president once more in 2018.

‘Do you want me to punch you to the floor to realise I am still there?’ Mugabe asked an interviewer who dared ask about retirement plans.

Meanwhile a savage struggle for succession between the ‘Lacoste’ faction, which backed Mnangagwa and ‘G40’, a younger group backing the outspoken and volatile First Lady ‘Gucci Grace’ became increasingly public.

As the economy went into tailspin yet again, Mugabe fired his old friend Mnangagwa from the vice-presidency to assist his wife’s claim on his throne. This provoked the generals, backed by both China and Britain, to oust the old man.

For all his fierce anti-colonial rhetoric, some said part of Mugabe was always playing the role of an English gentleman throughout his wretched reign of terror.

Zimbabwean-born writer Heidi Holland said that when she met Mugabe in 2007, he had tears in his eyes as he told her how he treasured the moments when the Queen and her sons and daughter had stayed with him at State House.

Robert Mugabe came to symbolise the post-colonial tragedy of many parts of his continent as he clung to power regardless of the cost for his country. ‘Zimbabwe is mine,’ he once said.

Yet he was a liberation hero who turned the sweet dream of independence into a sour nightmare of chaos, misery, poverty and repression for his tormented nation. 

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