Robert Mugabe: The greatest trick the devil ever played
The fallacy of the hero-turned-villain narrative of Robert Mugabe is the greatest trick this devil ever played.
The closest I have to feeling anything is quiet, seething rage.
Rage that this man who killed thousands and destroyed so many livelihoods has died without facing justice for his atrocities. I am not religious but want now more than anything to hang tightly to the promise of purgatory – the halfway house and hell’s holding cell.
He escaped justice in this life, I pray it is waiting for him in the next. I hope he is “under arrest” right now and will be denied bail just as he arrested and denied the thousands he persecuted in his four decades in power.
Many say they are conflicted about Mugabe – whom they call a pan Africanist, father of the Zimbabwean nation and a hero turned villain. I personally do not suffer from this conflict.
Credited by some for his gallant role in leading Zanu in the last very short leg of the liberation struggle from 1975 to 1979 – only four years – he gets far more credit than he deserves.
The gallantry and heroism, according to his closest comrades, is manufactured.
His recruiter into the liberation struggle and companion on the surreptitious journey to Mozambique, Edgar Tekere former secretary general of Zanu PF, spoke in his book, of a reluctant, scared and unwilling participant of the struggle into which he was foisted because he with his multiple academic degrees, he spoke and wrote well compared to the other guerillas.
Much like his cousin and nationalist James Chikerema who spoke of the narcissistic and self-absorbed young bookish boy who threw tantrums and abandoned other boys when they herded cattle. Revelations that would help illuminate the man’s behaviour in later years.
He wanted everything done his way.
He never tolerated dissent during the liberation struggle and after. He stoked controversy on his role in the death of Josiah Tongogara, the Zanla commander in 1979 in order to ostensibly consolidate his control over Zanu PF. Tongogara preferred a united front under Joshua Nkomo.
After independence having decided Zimbabwe would be a one party state, he demanded and required full compliance and loyalty. When his comrades questioned it, they were sidelined or worse.
He brutalized Joshua Nkomo and his party for resisting the one-party state. He coveted and desired absolute power. Always wary and spiteful of contenders to power in Zanu PF.
He jettisoned erstwhile right-hand comrades like Edgar Tekere, Eddison Zvobgo, Dzikamai Mavhaire, Margaret Dongo, Enos Nkala, Solomon Mujuru, Moyo Mutsvangwa, Didymus Mutasa, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Then he toyed with them by bringing some of them back when he felt they had learnt their lesson.
The lesson that there is only one leader. And his name is Mugabe. He maintained a divide and rule system built of fear and suspicion. His comrades both feared him and mistrusted each other and could never muster a revolt against him.
Attempts to do so were sure to be fatal with many dying under suspicious circumstances – usually car accidents, alleged poisoning or other undisclosed sudden illness – methods which his comrades readily used against each other.
To ensure his comrades toed the line, he built a zero-sum, kill or be killed, do-or-die party system in which you were either in or out. Once out you either fled into exile or were stripped of everything the party had allowed you to accumulate.
He was aloof and cold. Vengeful and unforgiving. In 1980, fearful of Joshua Nkomo, his party and better trained guerillas, he spent considerable resources to build his own army militia answerable to him and ready to do his political and ethnic bloodletting.
The Gukurahundi or 5th Brigade was a private army with instructions to kill, rape, torture and plunder Joshua Nkomo and his supporters into submission. He did not stop, until 20,000 people were dead. He would never have stopped had Nkomo not capitulated and sworn allegiance to his authority. Only total submission and subjugation assuaged Mugabe.
There is nothing in his record that shows benevolence or democratic credentials. He never sought to build a nation but stoked and amplified tribal differences advantaging his Zezuru clansmen and entrenching a sense of exclusion and marginalisation amongst other clans.
In the 1980s he spoke of destroying opposition Zapu and he kept his promise through Gukurahundi killing thousands of its largely Ndebele supporters. He left a country more ethnically divided than it was when the liberation struggle began. He ethnicised politics and politicised ethnicity, conveniently labeling the multi-ethnic Zapu as a Ndebele party as a pretext to destroy it.
His demagoguery left Zimbabwe collectively carrying his individual guilt and responsibility and a sense of exclusion and grievance. He pretended to manage inclusion by appointing yes men from different ethnic groups with little intention or desire to deepen inclusion.
Political violence normalised
In 1990, he warned supporters of the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) led by his erstwhile comrade Edgar Tekere, that one way to die was to vote for ZUM. The result was an unleashing of violence which culminated in the shooting of Patrick Kombayi by officers of his Central Intelligence Organisation.
He would later give the two officers amnesty after they were convicted for attempted murder. He readily gave all his comrades amnesties whenever they transgressed – including committing serious crimes like murder and corruption, a clear indication of his disdain for rule of law.
He berated judges who made decisions he did not like and unleashed his militia to intimidate the Chief Justice in his office to force him to resign.
In the 2000s he unleashed Zanu PF militia against MDCs Morgan Tsvangirai killing hundreds. Simultaneously, sensing that he was running out of cards he turned on white commercial farmers who had supported him earlier when they showed disloyalty and support for the MDC.
A mastermind – in one master stroke, he struck at both the white farmers and the MDC and claimed the ultimate prize of winning back votes by giving back the land and decimating the opposition whilst claiming the high anti-colonial moral high ground in Africa and elsewhere.
No sane Zimbabweans could question the need to redress the land problem which had been the basis for the armed struggle. But Mugabe kept the best farms for himself and his cronies in Zanu PF and the military who went on a looting spree, grabbing multiple farms for themselves and their families.
Always a political opportunist, realising that the opposition drew its support from urban centres, in 2005, he unleashed his wrath on the urban population, destroying homes in an operation known as Operation Murambatsvina (Reject Dirt) that the UN characterised as approximating crimes against humanity.
Yes-men and murderers
At the end of the day, his arrogance and hard-headedness meant that even his comrades were afraid to contradict and challenge him. It also meant that he surrounded himself with like-minded violence mongers who readily did his bidding and personally benefitted from it.
He was unforgiving and willing to rewrite the nationalist struggle for independence so that only he was the pre-eminent and leading nationalist – despite having only taken charge of ZanuPF in 1977, two years before the ceasefire.
He always placed his contribution above and beyond far worthier forebears like Joshua Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole, Lookout Masuku, George Silundika, Herbert Chitepo, Leopold Takawira, and Jason Ziyaphapha Moyo.
He appropriated the National Heroes Acre as a private cemetery only for people he approved, excluding Lookout Masuku, Ndabaningi Sithole, Chinx Chingaira and others.
In the end, his comrades overcame their fear and deposed him. That they had to use the army demonstrated the entrenchment and instrumentalisation of violence to retain and obtain political power.
None of the touted democratic process in Zanu PF would work to remove him. To remove him, his comrades would need to violate their party and national constitution and depose him via a coup. This was the legacy he left, 40 years into his rule.
Compared to other liberation movements in the region which saw many successive, democratic and party sanctioned changes of presidential power. Mugabe bestrode Zanu and Zimbabwe like a colossus expecting to concede power to the only thing that did not fear him – death.
Turning on allies
In 2001, on landing at Harare International Airport, now named after him, he declared that the white people in Zimbabwe and those in MDC should go back to England or be imprisoned. He singled out Roy Bennet and David Coltart, whom he had personally telegrammed to come back in 1980.
Separately, he was unleashing violence against the new MDC and selectively distributing food aid when hundreds of thousands faced hunger in the middle of one of the worst droughts the country has faced.
I felt compelled to act against what was clearly an intensification of systematic attacks against innocent civilians and the opposition. I decided to write him a letter from East Timor where I was working in the Tribunal that was dealing with crimes against humanity – to register my concerns and to “reprimand” him.
Expectedly, I never received a response but more importantly, the MDC white politicians were spared arrest. A few months later, to my shock, I received information that there were discussions between the MDC and one of the former Rhodesian colonels, Lionel Dyke, implicated in Gukurahundi – on giving Mugabe amnesty for the most egregious of his crimes.
I tried unsuccessfully to find any of the implicated colleagues in these secret talks – which were presumably planned for South Africa – to get the real story. None was available.
Besides witnessing and being affected by Gukurahundi directly as a child, as a law student, I had been a junior researcher and volunteer at the Bulawayo Legal Projects Centre which had produced the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, Breaking the Silence Report on the atrocities.
I had met many of the victims who streamed in to tell their stories. I was upset that there could be a discussion of amnesty without hearing the victims. I was left with only one option. To write.
I called Iden Wetherell at Zimbabwe Independent and asked whether he would publish a piece the following Friday. It was Wednesday and he said he had already completed his layout and I was too late.
I implored him that this was of national importance and could not wait until the following week. It would be too late. Iden – who many may not know is not just a former ZIPRA cadre but a holder of a doctorate from before one could purchase them – gave me a lifeline : “You can send it now. Just email it.”
But I have not written it yet,” I replied. I will write it tonight.” He could not promise but asked me to send it. I did not sleep that night and sent to Iden a piece entitled “Amnesty for Mugabe for Gukurahundi out of the Question.”
I then crossed my fingers and held my breath. On Friday, I was delighted to see that Iden had published in his front page. He had apparently “agreed” on its national importance. In my piece, I berated anyone including MDC leaders for arrogantly thinking they could have a mandate to negotiate an amnesty for Mugabe for Gukurahundi without a mandate from the victims.
What followed was even more interesting. In a rally the next day, Morgan Tsvangirai distanced himself from amnesty talks and said the MDC would pursue justice. I felt vindicated for the sleepless night.
More would follow. A few weeks later, at Heroes Acre where my mother goes every year on Heroes Day (for my father), my mother reported that Mugabe had spoken to her at my father’s grave and asked “MaSibanda how are you and the children? She had responded that we are all fine. “How is your son?” He had further asked, “But I have many sons Mr. President” she had replied. Ngitsho uSipho, unjani uSipho?, he interjected.
She was puzzled but replied that I am fine. “Is he still in East Timor? “Yes he is, Sir”, she replied. “Oh Ok..that’s good! Tell him we are proud of him and he must keep up the good work,” he responded as he walked away.
The ZAPU comrades in the presidency had then cornered my mother and said “please tell our son Sipho to call us. We know he may be unhappy about some things but there is no need to write to newspapers when we are here”.
My mother had rushed home to call me to tell me that I should not come back home, because there was something in the way President Mugabe had asked after me. I laughed her concerns off and a few months later I was on a flight back home on leave.
I would continue to write critiquing him, at times using pseudonyms when I worried about exposing relatives and loved ones. I knew Mugabe’s wrath from when I was a 10 year old boy. My father, Sidney Malunga – as Zapu spokesman who exposed his atrocities – got the worst of Mugabe’s brutality.
Starting barely a few months into independence in 1980, countless night-time raids at home and arrests, detentions incommunicado, torture, sham trials, acquittals followed by further unlawful detentions for years on end.
So we ‘lived’ with Mugabe in our house.
He was a constant feature. My father ranting about him or his party. My older brother Busi (20) and cousin Ronald (17) arrested and detained at Brady Barracks in lieu of my father.
His intelligence goons intimidating and turning our house upside down, the sweeteners he would offer my father – an ambassadorial post here or there – which he would dismiss saying that he is not for sale.
The continuous consciousness of an ever-present and ever-looming danger. That is what Mugabe represented to me from an early age. This would not change in my adulthood as I became a critic of his misrule and advocate for him to face justice for his heinous crimes. It has not changed now.
Much will be said by others about his misrule and economic destruction of the country and its people’s livelihoods that there is little point in repeating.
More about how he allowed, facilitated and encouraged corruption by his comrades, rewarding and never punishing it. He revelled in false claims that he was corruption-free but was just surrounded by thieves.
But which honest person only surrounds himself with only corrupt people and worse still promotes them.
There is no doubt in my mind that he too was corrupt.
From the Fokker Airplane, to Zimbank-Loral, via National Housing, the Willowvale Motor Scandal, the War Victims Compensation corruption scandals and many others, he was clearly the head of a corrupt system not the victim of dishonest company.
This would become even more apparent when his wife looted the national housing scheme to build a private mansion which she would later sell for a huge profit, when he leveraged state resources for his farming businesses, when he forced the army and police to buy his produce, when he and his wife grabbed multiple farms.
He selectively and conveniently peddled pan-African credentials to shore up support for his disastrous economic and political policies. Whilst killing and beating his own African citizens, stealing elections, starving opposition supporters and plundering public resources, he railed against imperialist forces blaming them for all his failures because of travel and others sanctions they imposed on him personally and his lieutenants.
He left nothing to show for ruling a country for almost 40 years except decay. His touted legacy of significant investments in education manifest in a collapsed education system in which in some rural children still learn under trees, teachers earn $25 a month, and learners can barely afford fees.
In a twist of irony, he may have invested in his political longevity as educated Zimbabweans fled the country in thousands to seek opportunities all over the world. They would remit money and food home to relatives when the economy and living conditions tanked and hyperinflation set in – effectively saving his bacon.
That he died in a Singapore hospital where he battled illness for over half a year is testament of his catastrophic and shameful failure not just to build a viable health system but to simply maintain what he inherited from the Rhodesians.
Worst of all, even though he was deposed in 2017, he bequeathed to the country a monstrous political system run by a small political, predatory and corrupt elite comprised of his cronies with greater interest in advancing personal and not public interest.
In that sense, he never left even in death.
His legacy of stolen elections and violence continues to determine the primary basis of political engagement as shown by the army shootings of August 2018, and the heavy handed security response to protests in January and August 2019.
The narrative game
When a person dies, the task of encapsulating and narrating their life becomes critical.
There are always multi-dimensional narratives about any person – and especially a larger than life figure like Mugabe. In African custom the saying goes that “a dead person becomes a good person” akin to “never speak ill of the dead.”
But facts are stubborn. Mugabe brooked no resistance from anyone – inside his own movement and outside. He readily eliminated every one of his enemies – inside and outside his movement going back to the liberation struggle.
He mastered, deployed and instrumentalised violence, demagoguery and hate for political ends. For the most part it worked well for him until it was used against him. Having drawn and tasted blood of 20,000 Ndebeles in the 1980s, he considered the death of a few hundred MDC supporters in 2008, child’s play, boasting that, of the multiple academic degrees he held, he coveted most his degree in violence.
Mugabe never changed. He never turned from hero to villain. He was always a villain. The greatest trick this devil ever played was to persuade people that he did not exist.
But fortunately death is an equal opportunity arbiter. The only time abusers experience the same and equal treatment as their victims.
The main regret is that he died without facing justice for his atrocities which would have helped his victims find closure.
The only silver lining is this dark cloud is that some of his accomplices are still alive to account for their atrocities and for destroying the hopes, dreams and livelihoods of millions of Zimbabweans.
Siphosami Malunga is a Zimbabwean lawyer and he writes here in his personal capacity.