After 13,731 days in office, or more than 37 years, Robert Gabriel Mugabe finally resigned. The speaker of Zimbabwe’s parliament, Jacob Mudenda, made the announcement.
In his resignation letter, Mugabe said that the decision was voluntary and that he had made it to allow a smooth transfer of power. The surprise announcement halted the impeachment hearing that the parliament had just initiated.
For a man who was once hailed as a hero of the liberation struggle, it was an ignominious ending. The charges against him were not only that he had protected associates from allegations of corruption, but that he had fallen asleep in cabinet meetings and needed his wife – Grace – to steady him from stumbling or falling.
Perhaps there was some justice in this: it was Grace who persuaded Mugabe to break with his long-time ally, Emmerson Mnangagwa, firing him as vice-president and driving him into exile. It was she who gathered round her a group of cronies known as Generation 40.
Mugabe also fell out with the war veterans – the men and women who had fought for him during the bloody civil war against Ian Smith and white rule that ended in Mugabe’s election as Prime Minister in 1980. It was a critical mistake, for once they turned on him he had a limited number of friends to fall back on.
Mugabe was a leader who embodied many contradictions. Shrewd, intelligent, eloquent and fiercely nationalistic, he was outwardly quiet, but inwardly ruthless. Even as a guerrilla leader he had exhibited a killer instinct – seeing to it that hundreds of his own fighters who had turned against him were wiped out.
When he was first sworn in as prime minister on 18 April 1980, Mugabe went on radio and television holding out the hand of friendship to the whites. “If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend and ally in the same national interests, loyalty, rights and duties as myself,” he famously declared. “If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me, and me to you.”
Yet he did not exhibit the same tolerance towards his erstwhile ally, Joshua Nkomo, a representative of the Ndebele people in the area known as Matabeleland. Believing that Nkomo was moving weapons from Zambia into newly independent Zimbabwe, he unleashed the notorious Fifth Brigade, who massacred some 20,000 people in Matabeleland.
When Mugabe lost a referendum in 2000, he turned on the whites, seizing their lands and redistributing it to the poor – and a good number of the new elite who surrounded the presidency. There might have been justice in the land redistribution, but it turned Zimbabwe from a food exporter into a food importer, incapable of even feeding its urban population.
Mugabe’s legacy is that he has impoverished his once-prosperous country. The GDP per capita has fallen to about a third of its value at independence, slashed from about $3,600 in 1980 to about $1,000 today. By comparison, GDP in Botswana was about $1,500 in 1980 and is now $13,000. To survive Mugabe’s economic policies, and to flee from the violence that accompanied rigged elections, some three million Zimbabweans escaped to South Africa. There they found jobs as best they could, sent cash home, but have had to endure xenophobic attacks.
And what of the man most likely to now assume the presidency?
Emmerson Mnangagwa is someone who was close to Mugabe from the earliest days, being trained as a fighter in China’s Nanking Academy in 1966. After independence Mnangagwa held a string of offices. As former Minister of State Security and later Defence, he maintained excellent connections to the security forces and intelligence services. But he is also remembered by civil servants for his brief time as in the finance ministry, where he was considered one of the most outstanding politicians they ever worked with.
It is Mnangagwa who is almost certain to take Zimbabwe forward from here, as Mugabe slips into the past. Unlike Nelson Mandela, whose great gift to South Africa was to hand over to his successors with good grace after just one term in office, Mugabe held on to the bitter end. He must now slope off to retirement, and possibly even prosecution. Like so many of the African dinosaurs who fail to relinquish office, Mugabe leaves the presidency a much diminished figure.