I start with a disclaimer. An African culture and worldview, when a person has passed on, it is not allowed to dwell on the weaknesses of such a person. The philosophy behind this attitude is that criticism of a dead person serves no use for such a person not even for the living. It is believed that God is the final arbiter of human actions. That is why at funerals one only hears praises of the virtues of the dead person. Those still living are best guided by the virtues of the deceased and not by the vices. It is with this in mind that I try to join all those who are mourning the late Robert Gabriel Mugabe or Uncle Bob (as he was affectionately called) to pay tribute but also draw some lessons for Africa’s political leaders. A lot has been said about Robert Mugabe, former president of Zimbabwe and more will continue to be said for many years to come.
This brief tribute will examine Mugabe the man, his political legacy both for Zimbabwe and for Africa, and mention some few lessons to be drawn for the remaining long-serving leaders in Africa.
Funeral of an Icon of Pan-Africanism and Liberation Struggles in Africa
The state funeral service for Robert Mugabe was held on 14th September, at the National Sports Stadium in Harare where in 1980 the late former president was inaugurated as the first head of state for independent Zimbabwe. The bit of controversy surrounding the funereal venue will not detain, only to mention that true to Mugabe’s controversial political life, even in death, some drama serves to symbolize how he would not go down quietly. His home village of Kutama where he was raised and his ancestors are buried would have loved to have him buried there. But on the other hand, having been a statesman and hero according to his own ruling party ZANU-PF, having him buried in Hero’s Acre where other political luminaries are buried would serve to immortalize him as a statesman. Heads of states from across Africa came to pay tribute to “The Son of the Soil”—a phrase much used in Zimbabwe to refer to a nationalist who has left a mark on the sands of time. The over ten leaders that honored the funeral include: President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya (who was seen sharing a big laugh with Cyril Ramaphosa), President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa (who was booed by the crowd supposedly in reaction the recent Zeno-phobic attacks in South Africa), President Edgar Lungu of Zambia, President Teodoro Obieng of Equatoria Guine, to name a few. Several Vice Presidents represented their respective Heads of State: Tanzania, Cuba, and a good number of former heads of state: Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Sam Nujoma of Namibia. This clearly demonstrates how the Late Robert Mugabe was held in high esteem by several African countries.
Tribute after tribute, the speakers mentioned his pan-African commitment, role in liberation struggles in Southern Africa, and of course the liberation of Zimbabwe from Ian Smith’s colonial hold. Mugabe represents the generation of African leaders who took on the colonial edifice head-on and paid a heavy price for it. All speakers kept referring to Mugabe’s enduring legacy for the liberation of Africa and his unapologetic critique of global capitalism and imperialism. His education and eloquence has been well documented. In case of doubt just listen to any You Tube clips of some of his speeches at the UN. Oh boy, and he could attack with his tongue! He would get standing ovations after his punch. Those who got the taste of his acerbic tongue include Tony Blair former Prime Minister of Britain and George Bush of the US. This rhetoric both at home and abroad earned him enemies and friends in equal measure and this will remain so for decades to come. Robert Mugabe lived a long life of 95 years and had all the time to outlive most of his political enemies both at home and abroad.
The media, is feasting on this global icon of pan-africanism and African liberation. Just few screaming headlines will suffice: Daniel Kalinaki of Uganda’s The Monitor (September 12 2019)—“Mugabe the tyrant is dead. Long live Comrade Bob the liberator!”; Associate Press (September 11 2019)— “Mugabe’s body arrives home for burial in divided Zimbabwe”; Karoli Ssemogerere of Uganda’s The Monitor (11th September 2019)– God and Mugabe: Another look at Zimbabwe’s legend; Fred Oluoch, of The East African (September 7, 2019)—“Robert Mugabe, a man of many faces”; The Nation carried a yet another screaming headline: “Mugabe: Hero to Villain”; Dr. Eliya Msiyaphazi Zulu’s piece in the East Africa takes a pedagogical approach: “Some lessons from Robert Mugabe’s rule”; n (September 7th 2029); Associated Free Press—“Confusion as Mugabe’s family, government squabble over burial site”; “Mugabe’s family agree to burial in national monument: spokesman”. These headlines just demonstrate how controversial a figure Mugabe was, alive or dead.
Whoever claims to understand Robert Mugabe well is clearly deluded. He defies definition and characterization. One former Editor of the Economist, even suggested that there might never be any person like Mugabe in the future. He clearly is in a class of his own. The disciplines the studied, mainly in prison, such as Economics, Administration, Law, Education, and Political Science, gave him a certain grasp of issues from several perspectives. Journalists who dared him found themselves on the receiving end. He had a good masterly of English language. Some of his memorable quotes are going viral such as: “Only God who appointed me will remove me—not MDC, not the British”; to Blair he said: “Keep your Britain as I keep my Zimbabwe”; Then he dogmatically said: “Zimbabwe would never be a colony of Britain again. Never!.”
How come Mugabe ended up being both an icon and villain? Scholars and analysts will handle this question for many years to come and there will never be consensus. This is why. Zimbabwe was a settle colony that got independence after a vicious armed struggle. Talk to any Zimbabwean and they will tell you stories of Chimurenga I and II. Liberation struggles in Southern Africa were brutal and as a result they gave rise to liberation heroes who survived the brutal wars. Look at Mozambique with FRELIMO, Angola with RENAMO, Namibia with SWAPO and South Africa with ANC. The enigma in Mugabe is partly a result of armed liberation struggle but also his character and personality. Those who knew him as a young boy mention that he was rather reserved and bookish. There is mention that he was educated by Jesuits in Kutama in his early days of schooling. Other observers suggest that his ideology is a blend of some Catholic ideals enshrined in Catholic social doctrine that tilted him to left or socialist thinking. He also had some ties with Cuba. His stay in Ghana where he even got a wife Sally Mugabe, got him in touch with Kwame Nkrumah and no doubt got fired up by pan-Africanism.
Robert Mugabe led the guerilla movement but he was not a military man like Herbert Chitepo. To take charge of a highly militarized liberation struggle with no military training is a mark of great leadership ability. Clearly his rhetorical skills were his secret power. Listening to him during rallies as he spoke fluent Shona and English, moving crowds of both elite and ordinary Zimbabweans, made it perusively clear that he had captured the political imagination of millions of Zimbabweans. Within the region, he was also considered an elder statesman. SADC, the regional block that mobilizes Southern African countries had its Defense Organ in Zimbabwe. In terms of military capability Mugabe’s Zimbabwe was a force to reckon with. This was demonstrated when there was trouble in DRC in 1998 and Mugabe dispatched his forces that saved the elder Kabila’s regime. Even when Desire Kabila died under mysterious circumstances, Mugabe remained an influence actor in the political affairs of DRC. No surprise that Joseph Kabila attended the funeral of Mugabe.
To be continued ………………
Written By Odomaro Mubangizi
In honour of Robert Mugabe, the African Heritage Foundation will be screening the documentary Mugabe: Hero or Villain at a time and place to be announced.
See footage from a screening of the same documentary at the New York University Wagner Student Alliance for Africa (WSAFA).
If you would like to be personally informed of whenand where the AHF screening of Mugabe:Hero or Villain will take place, you can do so by sending your name and contact info to … email@example.com