Analysis | The conflicting legacy of Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe was the leader of a prominent faction of guerillas during Zimbabwe’s independence struggle.

September 06, 2019 03:16 pm | Updated September 07, 2019 02:36 pm IST

Robert Mugabe addresses people at an event before the closure of his party’s 16th Annual Peoples Conference in Masvingo, south of the capital Harare. Mugabe, was ultimately ousted by his own armed forces in November 2017.

Robert Mugabe addresses people at an event before the closure of his party’s 16th Annual Peoples Conference in Masvingo, south of the capital Harare. Mugabe, was ultimately ousted by his own armed forces in November 2017.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the former President of Zimbabwe who died on Friday at age 95, leaves behind a conflicting legacy. He was the leader of a prominent faction of guerillas during Zimbabwe’s independence struggle. He fought the British colonialists, ended the country’s Britain-backed white minority rule and became the first elected Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. But he also presided over the fall of the country’s economy, while the regime he built established an oppressive single party rule. Any analysis of Mugabe’s legacy should look at these many faces of Robert Mugabe.


When Mugabe joined politics in early the 1960s, the National Democratic Party led by Joshua Nkomo was the main anti-colonial force in Southern Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then known. Influenced by Ghana’s independence hero Kwame Nkrumah and Marxism Leninism, Mugabe joined a radical faction within the NDP. Later this faction split from the party and formed the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). After organising anti-government rallies, the White government arrested him for sedition in 1964. After his release a decade later, Mugabe fled the country but never left the movement. From Mozambique, he led the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, the military wing of ZANU, in the war for liberation.

In the war, two factions were fighting the colonial government of Ian Smith — Mugabe’s ZANU and the armed wing of ZAPU, or Zimbabwe African People’s Union, the party led by Joshua Nkomo, Mugabe’s former ally-turned rival. Towards the late 1970s, as it was evident that the government could not win the war, it started implementing political reforms, including universal suffrage. In late 1979, the British government, its local allies and the guerillas signed the Lancaster House Agreement, bringing the liberation war to an end. In the elections held in March 1980, Mugabe’s ZANU captured power, and he became the Prime Minister. Mugabe’s swearing in was seen as quite a revolutionary moment in the history of Africa’s anti-racist and anti-colonial movement. Bob Marley, who was highly popular among the guerillas, travelled to Harare, stayed overnight in a rundown hotel and sang at the swearing in ceremony.


Mugabe initially rolled out welfare measures, especially in the healthcare and education sectors. He had also struck a conciliatory tone with the White minorities and discouraged them from fleeing the country. He launched an ambitious land reform initiative aimed at addressing the question of inequality. Initially, the programme was based on a “willing seller and willing buyer” principle. But despite promises, this initiative was a failure as half of the country’s land was controlled by the white minority even after two decades since the independence.

In 2000, militant supporters of the President and ruling party members started seizing farm lands forcefully. For Mugabe, it was a radical plan to redistribute the farm lands and address acute poverty and landlessness among the country’s vast majorities. But the plan, poorly thought-through and executed, backfired. The government didn’t have a foolproof plan to promote agriculture in the seized lands. The violent land reforms stunted the country’s agriculture productivity, leading to food shortages and subsequent economic miseries. From 1998 to 2008, the country’s agricultural output slumped by more than 60%.


The system Mugabe built functioned around him. He first established himself as the unquestionable leader of ZANU. He purged his potential rivals, expelled Nkoma, leader of ZAPU, from the Cabinet and later merged ZANU and ZAPU into a new entity — ZANU PF. In 1988, he changed the constitution to create an executive presidency and became the country’s first executive president. Since then, he always got re-elected. The only occasion he faced a serious electoral challenge was in 2002, from opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. After the first round, Tsvangirai was arrested and beaten in detention. He pulled out of the race, which allowed Mugabe to “win” again. In 2016, when he was 92, Mugabe indicated that he would remain in power until his death.


The latter half of Mugabe’s rule is also known for the rapid collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy. Inflation was at 200 million percent. Almost 80 out of 100 Zimbabweans are out of work. According to UNICEF, about 2.1% of Zimbabwean children under five had severe acute malnutrition, as of 2016, and some 37% of households were battling food shortages. Life expectancy in Zimbabwe is 61, two years higher than the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. True, western sanctions, imposed on Zimbabwe after Mugabe’s 2002 crackdown on the opposition, have added to these economic woes. But Mugabe, who was in power for close to four decades, can’t abandon responsibility for the crisis the country is in today.

He also failed to ensure a transition, instead he remained obsessively focussed on amassing power in his own hands. In the wake of mass protests, the military and the ZANU-PF moved against him in November 2017 and his Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa assumed power. The military doesn’t want to call it a coup. But they ousted him, and allowed him to live in Zimbabwe, and in official communications, he’s still referred to the father of the nation. Incidently, it was Mr. Mnangagwa who told the world about the death of his former boss. “It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwe’s founding father and former President, Comrade Robert Mugabe,” he tweeted on Friday.

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