Zimbabwe is mine!” “Tony Blair, keep your Britain, I will keep my Zimbabwe!” Centuries ago in France, Louis XIV had infamously exclaimed, “I am the state” (all state power resides in my person). But even he, the epitome of absolute and megalomaniacal rule, did not claim France as his.
For Robert Gabriel Mugabe, not only did all state power reside in his person, but the country was his personal property. These claims of ownership, made in wild outbursts of anger, were not a figure of speech.
In the 37 years he ruled Zimbabwe, he acted like the country was his personal fiefdom and its citizens indentured servants.
When they began to rebel in the late 1990s, retribution was swift and cruel. In the 2008 election which many believe was won by Morgan Tsvangirai, about 200 opposition supporters were killed and many more injured.
When international organisations and foreign governments began to criticise his absolute power, he lashed out viciously at white farmers.
When Mandela and Desmond Tutu, hardly sympathisers of imperialism, as he labelled anyone who spoke out against his regime, criticised his authoritarian rule, he lashed out at the two, referring to Tutu as “a little man in a dress.”
The façade of education, elegance and brilliant eloquence, with which he had cloaked a corrupt despotism, was now gone.
By the time he was eased out of power by the military, Mugabe was scheming, behind high-flown anti-imperialist rhetoric, to have his wife succeed him.
History will say that Mugabe showed his tyrannical tendencies during the campaign against dissidents soon after Independence.
In that campaign, an estimated 20,000 people, a majority of whom were civilians, were killed by a North Korean-trained unit of his army known as the 5th Brigade.
But this history of the Matabeleland massacres, as the Catholic church in Zimbabwe refers to the killings, is only acknowledged in hindsight.
In those first years of Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe, Africa and the world were enchanted with this eloquent and brilliant revolutionary leader. Africa especially, impoverished by goons and buffoons in power, needed someone to inspire it out of total despair.
Even when Mugabe’s ambition to create a one-party socialist state gained momentum in the late 80s, people refused to forsake him
At conferences on Africa, Robert Mugabe was lauded as the “vanguard of the African revolution,” the intellectual president who was building an African state based on socialist ideas and aspects of traditional African philosophy. Everyone was eager to witness this great African experiment.
Intellectuals fled from dictatorships in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa and took refuge in Zimbabwe. Black scholars from the Caribbean and America came calling. Pan-Africanist ideologues and dreamers congregated in Harare to gripe about the white man’s conspiracy to keep the black man in chains.
Liberal Western scholars paid visits. Volunteers and aid money came from Scandinavian countries. Zimbabwe of the 80s and 90s had become the Mecca of Afro-centric scholarship, progressive ideas and romantic visions of Africa’s past and future.
When I arrived in Harare to report on the great socialist/democratic experiment, I was quickly disillusioned. In Kwani Vol. 7, which features experiences of political and economic exiles, I write about that devastating disillusionment:
“The demise of the Soviet Union had put Robert Mugabe’s drive towards a one-party socialist state in limbo. But the intellectual and political culture, and the methods of a one-party dictatorship were evident.
“Comrade R.G Mugabe hurtled through Harare streets in an intimidating cavalcade of more than a dozen vehicles, army jeeps full of soldiers in tow. Robert Mugabe was another Daniel arap Moi with intellectual and socialist pretensions.”
Still, like the citizens in the story of The Emperor’s New clothes, the scholars and idealists congregated in Harare refused to see that the emperor was naked.
They praised the excellent fabric and the extraordinary cut and design of the royal robes. Even when Zanu-PF militias killed opposition supporters in the run up to the 2008 election, they hid behind leftist rhetoric.
When it became clear that the regime had only enriched Mugabe and his cronies, regime apologists justified his actions. Only when Zimbabweans themselves and, ironically, the international commune of ideologues and idealists in Harare, started fleeing, did the world finally acknowledge that the messiah had become pharaoh.
Robert Mugabe wrote a familiar script. Liberator. Despot. And, finally, a buffoonish character. A tragic end to great promise. It is the history of post-Independence Africa. One, tragically, written with the aid of leftist African and world intellectuals.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.