How project close to Mugabe’s heart ruined economy

Saturday September 07 2019

Zimbabwe's then-President Robert Mugabe talks during celebrations marking his 90th birthday in Marondera on February 23, 2014. PHOTO | JEKESAI NJIKIZANA | AFP

By Macharia Gaitho

As Zimbabwe celebrated independence in 1980, one of the highlights was a packed concert at the national stadium in Harare by reggae icon Bob Marley.

The same year, the Jamaican superstar released his bestselling album, Survival, with a standout track titled "Zimbabwe".

Marley’s involvement was an affirmation of just how important the new nation under former guerrilla leader Robert Mugabe was to the proponents of the African liberation struggle.

The former Rhodesia was about the last of minority white supremacist bastions on the continent to fall to majority rule, leaving apartheid South Africa as the last holdout.

With independence of Portuguese-ruled Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau in quick succession earlier in the past decades, freedom for Zimbabwe was hailed across Africa and the diaspora as the last towards isolation, encirclement and final toppling of the white supremacist state

Unfortunately, like with so many African countries that won their independence earlier, Zimbabwe was a dream deferred.


Mugabe exits the scene with opinion sharply divided over his real contribution to Zimbabwe and the cause of African liberation.


There are those who hold that he remained to the end a hero who led his country to independence, and thereafter continued to defy neo-imperialist British and American designs on Zimbabwe, particularly in interventions in support of a pampered and privileged white minority.

The collapse of the Zimbabwe economy under his watch, supporters say, was not because of his disastrous policies, but due to sanctions imposed by the West in trying to sabotage land redistribution programmes, shifting ownership from minority white to the majority black population.

There are those who hold that Mugabe was a tyrant who brutalised his own people, subverted democracy and ruined the mainstay of what was one of Africa's most vibrant and diverse economies through a ruinous programme that decimated the agriculture sector.

Probably the answer lies somewhere in between. What is not in doubt is that Mugabe was brilliant and committed nationalist who led his country to freedom from white minority rule.


Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) won a landslide pre-independence election against principal foe, veteran fellow freedom fighter Joshua Nkomo of the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (Zapu).

On installation as prime minister, he said all the nice things about running a democratic, multi-ethnic, multi-racial society, about national healing and reconciliation, and orderly transition to the new dispensation.

But almost immediately, he started espousing his preference for the one-party state then common in Africa, and within a short time a beaten Nkomo had capitulated.

His party merged with or was swallowed by Mugabe’s party to form Zanu-PF.

Mugabe transited from prime minister to a powerful executive president, and progressively moved the country into the typical African one-party mode typified by an all-powerful strongman who brooked no challenges.

Still, for the first two decades of independence, Zimbabwe remained a stable and fairly prosperous nation.


It achieved notable gains in access to education, health, employment and other social and economic services for the black majority.

It seemed on its way to becoming model for genuine multiracial society, but it hid a festering sore: land, and by extension the economic lever, was still in the hands of a white minority.

As the 2000 elections approached, Mugabe had his back against the wall.

An emergent opposition under trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai was exploiting Mugabe’s inexplicable failure to address the land question.

African people in both the urban and rural areas were captive audience for a party that promised to address supressed grievances through accelerated transfer of land from white to black ownership. Mugabe reacted by grabbing the land agenda.

Ten years earlier, a British-funded land transfer programme as party of the Lancaster House independence settlement had collapsed after beneficiaries turned out to be mainly powerful Cabinet ministers, party leaders and military brass.

This time Mugabe abandoned all pretence to an orderly and phased programme, inciting party loyalists and independence war veterans to invade and forcibly take over white-owned farms.


The action provoked international outrage, but excited the masses who rallied to his side.

Disorderly farm takeovers precipitated collapse of a agricultural sector that was the mainstay of the economy.

Things got worse when Britain, the US and the European Union tightened the screws with sanctions that speeded up economic collapse, helped along by disastrous printing of excess banknotes in vain effort to pay the bills.

Mugabe squeaked through in the elections, narrowly beating Tsvangirai's Movement for Multiparty Democracy in a poll marked by widespread intimidation and violence.

Over the next few years he ran brutal programmes to break the back of the opposition, even as the economy went further south.

Zimbabwe was reduced from a food exporter to basket case.

In 2008 Mugabe lost the first round at the elections, but Tsvangirai then pulled out of the runoff citing intimidation and a rigged system.


Mugabe sailed back, but unable to claim legitimacy amidst widespread discontent was forced into a national unity government with his old rival.

In 2009 Tsvangirai was named Prime Minister leading to an uneasy alliance over the next four years.

It was a shotgun marriage which retained Mugabe as a powerful president while bringing in Tsvangirai as an ineffectual PM.

The arrangement gave the president breathing room to retain his hold on power untroubled by an opposition chief who enjoyed only the trappings but not clout.

At the next elections in 2013, Mugabe, at the age of 89, retained office with an increased majority; while Tsvangirai, who had lost supporters after the union, was consigned to political oblivion.

With the opposition vanquished, Mugabe could crow that he would remain in power until God called him.

But ultimately it was not the opposition, but his own hubris that did him in.


As the years rolled by, Mugabe appeared to be manoeuvring a succession where he would turn over power to his increasingly influential second wife, Grace.

He signalled intention to contest the next polls set for 2018 when he would be 94, but was also seen to be sidelining the First Lady’s rivals on Zanu-PF.

In November 2017, he sacked the powerful Vice President, freedom war comrade and political enforcer Emmerson Mnangagwa, who reacted by mobilising the military chiefs into rebellion.

In short order, the military took to the streets and Mugabe was forced to resign.

Mnangagwa was installed as President, but as Zimbabweans celebrated the fall of the long servicing leader, they missed the point that it wasn’t a revolution but a palace coup.

Zanu-PF still rules, and shows little inclination to restore democracy or reserve decades of Mugabeism.

The difference is that the dour security apparatchik in Mnangagwa is no match for the brilliant mind of Mugabe, whose brilliant responses to Western critics became the stuff of legend.