Cartoon by Joep Bertrams


The Guardian: Three great questions dominated the 37-year rule of Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who has died aged 95.

One is the mystery of how a giant of Africa’s liberation movement, an intellectual who preached racial reconciliation long before Nelson Mandela emerged from prison, could turn into a caricature of despotism.

Another is what kind of future he would bequeath Zimbabwe, a beautiful yet benighted country that he ruled for almost all of the nearly four decades that have passed since it won independence from the British.

The third was the nature of his passing: would he die or be deposed?

We got the answer to the last one in November 2017, when Mugabe was ousted in a military coup in everything but name then ruthlessly sacked by his own party. Reluctantly, bewildered and shaken, the ailing president stood down. His last weeks in power had been dominated by a power struggle between his wife, Grace, and the former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-serving veteran of Zimbabwe’s 1970s liberation wars who had always been viewed as a likely successor. The news of Mugabe’s departure was greeted with rejoicing across the nation.

For the other two questions there are clues, but no easy answers, to the making of this dictator.

He was abandoned by his father as a boy; he suffered the deaths of a three-year-old son and a compassionate wife; then there was his warped fascination with Britain.

Mugabe was awarded an honorary knighthood by the Queen then stripped of the honour, an insult he never forgave. The former colonial power shaped his dress code, manners and vision to the end. “Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe,” he once said. “I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen.”

Zimbabwe is a nation whose gentleness and articulacy seem at odds with the catalogue of torture and thuggery; a fertile land with the best climate in the world brought to the edge of ruin.

Mugabe created Zanu-PF, the ruling party, in his own image, and sought to do the same with Zimbabwe. He rose with quiet determination and ruthlessness.

Raised a Catholic and educated at missionary schools, he moved to Fort Hare University in South Africa for the first of his seven degrees and became a teacher in Ghana.

When he returned to the then Rhodesia in 1960, his political activism earned him a 10-year prison term for “subversive speech”, after which he fled to neighbouring Mozambique to lead the guerrilla forces of the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) – which had split from Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) – in a protracted war against Ian Smith’s government that left 27,000 dead.

The 1979 Lancaster House agreement in London brought independence to Zimbabwe and Mugabe returned home a hero.

He announced a policy of reconciliation and invited whites to help rebuild the country.

He initially ran a coalition government with Nkomo, his fellow freedom fighter, but the pair fell out.

Then came the biggest counter-argument to the notion that Mugabe was a good man slowly corrupted by power: Gukurahundi, or “the rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains”.

As early as 1982 his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade crushed an armed rebellion by fighters loyal to Nkomo in the province of Matabeleland. His rival’s party, Zapu, was ethnically largely Ndebele, while Zanu was predominantly Shona. This divide underlay the vicious ethnic cleansing that ensued in the mid-80s, when at least 20,000 people died in Matabeleland, a series of massacres classified as genocide by the US-based Genocide Watch.

Few in the west noticed, or wanted to. They preferred to see an economy that was growing as agriculture boomed and Mugabe built clinics and schools, turning Zimbabwe into one of the healthiest, best-educated and most hopeful countries in Africa.

The optimism began to sour in 1997, when Mugabe gave in to pressure from war veterans waging violent protests for pensions. Trade unions and political activists began organising what would become the first viable political threat to Mugabe, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). But it was partly bankrolled by white farmers, which allowed Mugabe to whip up militancy against it.

In 2000 Mugabe began a land reform programme, billed as an attempt to correct the unresolved colonialist legacy by giving white-owned farms to landless black people. Many saw it as a crude attempt to sideline the MDC, which commanded wide support among farm workers.

White farmers were forcibly evicted by self-styled war veterans, many too young ever to have fought in the liberation war, and their properties handed to Zanu-PF cronies or black Zimbabweans who lacked the skills and capital to farm.

The ensuing chaos undermined the economy, which shrank to half the size it had been in 1980. The one-time “breadbasket of Africa” became dependent on foreign aid to feed its masses. Hyperinflation turned the national currency into a standing joke – a hamburger cost 15m Zimbabwe dollars – and it had to be abolished as the US dollar became the de facto currency >>>