Why did Robert Mugabe let go of power?

Image result for mugabe

Love him or not, everyone has an opinion about Robert Mugabe. Whether you think he is one of Africa’s greatest freedom fighters who is unafraid to spit in the corrupt face of colonialism, or whether you think he is the corrupt face of an African freedom fighter turned dictator- Mugabe’s 37-year tenure will go down in history.

Before Robert Mugabe’s infamous political career, Mugabe was a teacher and taught around Southern Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) for fifteen years. After gaining a scholarship to study History and English Literature, at South Africa’s University of Fort Hare where he partook in African nationalist meetings and joined the African National Congress. Whilst studying at University his interest in politics took off, especially after meeting Jewish South African communists who introduced him to Marxist ideals.

The Rise to Power

Mugabe, born in 1924, rose to prominence with his participation in the independence efforts from the then Southern Rhodesia. 57 years ago Mugabe joined and became the public secretary of the pro-independence National Democratic Party. In 1961 the NDP, led by black nationalist Joshua Nkomo, was banned by the white minority government. Ten days later it evolved by transforming into the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU). In 1963 Mugabe left ZAPU due to disagreements with Nkomo’s military tactics, and aided Ndabaningi-Sithole to form Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU, later ZANU-PF). 

During all of the quickly evolving black nationalist political landscape in Zimbabwe, the white miniority government led by Ian Smith thought of a way to circumnavigate the successful independence struggles that were spreading through Africa throughout the early 1960s. Mugabe was arrested several times in the early 1960s, and one time he skipped bail and travelled to Dar-es-Saleem, where he broadcast a number of speeches from Radio Tanzania that fed the imaginations of Zimbabweans. On return, in December 1963, Mugabe was imprisoned for refusing to apologise for “subversive speech”- other black leaders were also imprisoned e.g. Ndabaningi SitholeEnos Nkala, and Edgar Tekere. Think what you want of the man, but I found it impressive that he mustered the mental strength to gain several further degrees whilst in prison from the University of London: masters in economics, a bachelor of administration, and two law degrees. He would also teach inmates English and Mathematics.

With the prominent black leaders of Zimbabwe’s independence movement now in prison, the minority government felt they could now play their winning card. In 1965 Smith decided to claim independence from the then ruling Britain, in what is known as Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Politically it seemed like a genius move, however, most of the world saw through this sham independence attempt, nor did the people of Zimbabwe accept the removal of ‘Southern’ from the name Southern Rhodesia, as independence.

It’s no surprise that African’s born and raised in Zimbabwe would want their country to stop being named after a violent imperialist born in Hertfordshire, England.

Finally freed in 1974, Mugabe went into exile in Zambia and Mozambique and began planning to overthrow the white minority government, three years later he gained full control of ZANU’s military and political wings. He adopted Marxist and Maoist views; received arms and training from Eastern Europe and Asia, and he still managed to maintain good relations with Western donors. 

Who said men can’t multitask? 

In 1976, ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army), the military wing of ZANU, launched their first major attack from Mozambique, with nearly 1000 guerrillas crossing the border to attack white-owned stores and farms. After around 30,000 deaths the Rhodesian Bush War ended with a ceasefire agreement being made, and a transition to democratic majority rule in what is known as the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement. Although Mugabe was playing hardball, his military partner Joshua Nkomo, who had secretly begun talks about negotiations, was easier to please. The signed agreement stated that an Independence Constitution be written; land redistribution would occur over the next ten years, with the UK and US agreeing to compensate white farmers; and an immediate cease-fire agreement signed by all parties.

 In February 1980, the independent Zimbabwe held it’s first officially independent democratic elections, and Mugabe’s ZANU beat Joshua Nkomo‘s ZAPU; and Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front- officially starting the infamous Zimbabwean’s political career. 

Does Absolute Power Corrupt?

In the Zimbabwean fight for independence factions of the ZANU and ZAPU split off into their own factions. The ZANU predominately recruited people from the Shona ethnicity, whilst the ZAPU predominately recruited people from the Ndebele-speaking regions in the West. The two armies would each try to solidify their chances of political success in the countries imminent independence. After Zimbabwe’s new independence, animosity intensified when in November 1980, Enos Nkalam one of the founders of ZANU, threated ZAPU at a rally. This was the catalyst for further fighting culminating in the 3 January 1983 – 22 December 1987 Gukurahundi Massacres, in which Prime Minister Mugabe’s personal, North Korean trained, Fifth Brigade attacked dissidents to the ruling ZANU party. Many of these ‘dissidents’ were just normal Ndebele people– emphasizing why tribalism can be a fatal ideology. It is estimated that around 20,000 people died during this senseless massacre.

There’s nothing wrong with tribes, ethnicities and fully embracing the cultures they create, but when human reason is subverted to the reasoning of an innate tribal hierarchy-words such ethnic genocide spring to mind. 

Although the above sounds like the turning point for Mugabe to be labeled a dictator, his idea to consolidate power with ZAPU and ZANU, becoming a new unified ZANU-PF, also meant that their two respective military forces could stop fighting each other thus helping to end the Gukurahundi Massacres.

Of course, he could have done something to end the war he started earlier or perhaps stopped it from even beginning, but at least he did something? 

With Mugabe’s new seemingly unlimited powers, and the lack of challengable political opposition, in effect Mugabe could do whatever he pleased.

No scrutiny = No rules

I could write an essay deciding if Mugabe was an intrinsically corrupt leader, I’ll leave you to make your mind up on that, but what I find more interesting is the title of this article and it comes down to foresight. 

Mugabe knew his chances of grace were up. He had two choices voluntary resign and keep his aquired assets, or be impeached by the country he helped birth, having the full force of the law and international community on his back- thus risk losing his acquired assets. 

He made the smart choice

Despite threatening election tactics; political land redistribution that arguably was a large cause of Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation; Mugabe managed to cling on to power for 37 years.

Whatever you think of him some good came from Mugabe- he left a country with one of Africa’s highest adult literacy rates, he improved the lives of thousands of black farmers, and most importantly Mugabe left a country who wanted peace more than violence, so much so that not one person died in this military coup, unlike the Arab Spring.

We asked our Twitter followers last week if the coup will benefit or harm Zimbabwe’s political democracy…there was a clear winner.

When asking the same question to Steve Onuegbu, author and commentator on Africa, he said:
“it is an intervention that only the people of Zimbabwe will credit or discredited in the end. Just another history of Zimbabwe being written and this time without the strong man.”

Let’s hope that the power vacuum created without the strongman is democratically filled, and Zimbabwe can begin their new trajectory of self-determination .



Chijioke Anosike

TWN Editor

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