Mugabe: The man and the myth

Friday, 6 September 2019
Nick Westcott

Robert Mugabe, who has died at the age of 95, was a man of myth.

Not just one myth, but of two: the magician and the monster. Both had elements of truth, but neither was the whole man. Mugabe was someone whose shape shifted dramatically over time, taking his reputation with it.

He was, without doubt, the man who made Zimbabwe. Many others played a role: Ndabaningi Sithole, Joshua Nkomo, Abel Muzorewa, Rex Nhongo, the other leaders and fighters of ZANU. But Mugabe was the dominant force. He achieved this through three qualities: a powerful intellect, a clear strategic sense of direction, and a ruthless political skill. Not for nothing was he rumoured to keep a copy of Machiavelli's The Prince beside his bed. 

There is no question that people were intimidated by him. His sense of self-certainty, self-possession and determination came across to all who met him. An austere demeanour, taking everything he did seriously, was perhaps a legacy of his strict Catholic upbringing. To his family life, his first (Ghanaian) wife, Sally, brought a sense of humour and humanity that smoothed his temperament and, perhaps, moderated his judgement. But his mission to liberate his country took precedence over all else, and he bent his will and his efforts to that end, with a success that cannot be gainsaid.

I met Mugabe only once, in May 2013, when visiting Zimbabwe as the EU's Managing Director for Africa. After a 3-hour wait at State House, amongst the manicured lawns and shady trees of the gardens, we were ushered into his presence. He gave us the familiar lecture on the importance of land, his respect for Margaret Thatcher and the perfidy of Tony Blair and Clare Short, the vital role of African unity and the importance of standing independent of the West. Of the EU he had little opinion, so we turned to talking about history. I asked him which other African leaders he most admired. Nkrumah, Nyerere, Nasser, Sekou Toure, he said. And of those first two, which would you most like to emulate? Nkrumah, he replied. Even though Nkrumah left his country in ruins and Nyerere left his in peace? I asked. Mugabe changed the subject, to ask what the EU could do to help his country.

Mugabe's trajectory reflects the difficulty that many liberation movements and their leaders experience in transitioning from struggling to ruling. The skills that are essential for achieving successful liberation are not those you need for managing a pluralist democracy. Rigorous discipline, maintaining unity at all costs, secretiveness and surprise, the unexpected but decisive strike: these are not virtues that transition well to a post-liberation political order. Of course, liberation is not an event but a process. It does not happen overnight and takes years to embed the change in politics and mentality. So in many senses the struggle does continue, long after liberation itself. And when sovereignty is so new and so precious, challenges to it, even from a wholly Zimbabwean opposition representing only citizens of that very country, not any foreign power, can seem threatening. But when self-interest become tied up with state-interest, a threat to one can be misinterpreted as a threat to the other. And then the ruthlessness becomes autocracy, and the determination, dictatorship.

Mugabe came to consider himself the embodiment of the state, the personification of Zimbabwe. It was clear when I met him that, even in his eighties, he remained a more skilful politician than almost all around him. But that skill had been used to contain or control political threats to himself, not the long term benefit of the country. History is likely to judge his support for, and encouragement of the war veterans' seizure of land, as it judges Mao's cultural revolution, an attempt to keep control in a politically volatile environment which had disastrous consequences for the country in the short term. But his debasement of the currency and the economic meltdown that afflicted the economy in the early 2000s can be blamed on little other than corruption and incompetence.

Even in his nineties, though, Mugabe could still rally a crowd. It was striking that at AU meetings in Addis Ababa, amidst the increasingly sober democratic leaders of the continent, he remained the political rock star who received the loudest cheer, the longest applause and the most spontaneous laughter.

I remember discussing Mugabe with the president of one of Africa's more robust democracies: 'Ah', he said, ' this is a problem that you must let time resolve...'. In the end, Mugabe ran out of political time before he ran out of physical time, but not by much. Sadly, though Mugabe has departed the scene, the problems he left for Zimbabwe remain, and his successors show no more skill at resolving them than he did. But at least they have the independence and responsibility to do so - if they so choose.

And that is Mugabe's legacy to his country. He may rest in peace, but it has some way to go before it can.

Nick Westcott is the director of RAS.