The New Statesman Leader: Robert Mugabe, the fall of a tyrant

Finally, Zimbabwe has a realistic opportunity to repair its shattered economy and escape fear and repression.

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In December 2016 we published a long report from Zimbabwe headlined “The Last Days of Robert Mugabe”. It chronicled the country’s tragic decline under Mr Mugabe, a liberation leader who took the country to independence from white minority rule and then to ruin. Now, at last, the 93-year-old despot’s reign is over. The military took over running the country on 14 November and, on 21 November, Mr Mugabe resigned after impeachment proceedings began against him.

The New Statesman campaigned for decolonisation and supported non-violent national liberation movements. Yet we welcome these events, especially since Mugabe’s downfall has been achieved without the bloodshed and chaos that accompanies the end of so many dictators. Though the path ahead remains precarious, Zimbabwe has a realistic opportunity to repair its shattered economy and escape the fear that has kept its resilient people repressed for so long.

Mr Mugabe’s likely successor is his former right-hand man and vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, whose dismissal on 6 November precipitated the army’s “soft coup”. As Martin Fletcher writes in the upcoming issue of the New Statesman, Mr Mnangagwa, who is not young at 75, has a brutal reputation: but he is at least more of a pragmatist than his mentor. If he is genuine about reform and reconciliation, Western governments are likely to offer support. More importantly, some of the millions of Zimbabweans who have fled to South Africa and beyond will return home. At independence, the country was one of Africa’s bright hopes – with a well educated population and excellent infrastructure – and it can be so again.

For Mr Mugabe, it is a catastrophic end. A teacher who served nearly 11 years in prison, he orchestrated the often harrowing guerrilla campaign to overthrow Rhodesia’s mostly white minority government under prime minister Ian Smith. Following the Lancaster House Agreement, which granted Zimbabwe independence, Mr Mugabe was elected prime minister in 1980. Articulate and intelligent, he urged white Zimbabweans to stay and rebuild the country. He encouraged agriculture and built hospitals and schools for black Zimbabweans.

However, Mr Mugabe, an ethnic Shona, had a darker side. In the early 1980s, he sent his North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade into the Matebeleland region to crush supporters of the Zapu party, killing an estimated 20,000 ethnic Ndebeles. His relationship with whites also soon soured but it was not until 2000, when he was defeated in a constitutional referendum to increase his powers, that he launched attacks against some of those whites who had stayed on after independence.

Liberation curdled into tyranny. Thousands of white-owned farms were seized by so-called war veterans. Supporters of the emerging opposition Movement for Democratic Change were beaten, abducted or killed in their thousands. Elections were repeatedly stolen.

As the economy collapsed, life expectancy dropped to 55 years but Mr Mugabe, ascetic and abstemious, showed little sign of serious ill health until the last few years. He refused to step down or nurture a successor, leaving his second wife Grace, 41 years his junior, to position herself to take over. Few will mourn their demise.

This article appears in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder