“The good die young, and Robert Mugabe will live forever.” The well-worn phrase no longer applies to the Zimbabwean strongman. On September 6, he died in Singapore at the age of ninety-five.
During his thirty-seven years in power in Zimbabwe, he committed virtually every human rights violation there is. His hands were awash in the blood of Zimbabweans. Within the “liberation movement” that drove the white supremacist government of Ian Smith from power in 1980 (with considerable, if unacknowledged, assistance from apartheid South Africa, which was fearful that the bush war in Zimbabwe might spread south), he exploited ethnic differences to destroy his political enemies. Following independence, he waged war on the Ndebele people, who supported his political rival Joshua Nkomo, using North-Korea-trained troops.
Fanning and exploiting racial and class differences, he destroyed the country’s economy, once on the cusp of being one of Africa’s most developed, driving out commercial white farmers. He bought some time by exploiting the country’s diamond riches in cahoots with Chinese companies. He largely perverted the country’s domestic institutions through violence and intimidation, even attacking the Anglican Church. By the time he died, Zimbabwe was an international pariah, an economic basket case, and many or most of the country’s most educated and productive citizens had left the country.
Yet, Mugabe benefited from a remarkable Teflon quality. African leaders were loath to criticize him because of the view that he was a leader of Africa’s liberation. Western reluctance to recognize how evil he was is less obvious. A Western drive for “balance” in considering Mugabe was long-standing. When he first came to power, Mugabe preached racial reconciliation and moderation. Western observers, looking for an African hero, saw him as a democrat and reassured themselves that, after all, he was a Catholic (he was educated at a Jesuit school). Whether he ever was sincere in his democracy or his religion, is hard to know. Nelson Mandela was, of course, genuine in his devotion to democracy and racial reconciliation. Mugabe clearly resented him, and has consistently criticized him as “selling-out” South Africa’s blacks to white interests. But Western reluctance to criticize him endured, especially during apartheid South Africa's domination of southern Africa.
Western reluctance may, in part, have also reflected guilt over colonialism and white racism. Even the Washington Post’s headline of September 6 trumpeted that he “helped liberate and destroy his country.” Destroy it he certainly did. But his “liberation” for far too many Zimbabweans was the liberation of death. He built a repressive security state that has continued on largely unchanged after a 2017 palace coup removed him from power. The coup was led by his eventual successor (and partner in crime) Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mugabe’s death changes little for the Zimbabwean people, at least for now. He is likely to be remembered not as a “liberation” leader but instead as a salutary reminder that a single individual with great power and some allies can destroy a country.