Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the former Zimbabwean leader who died in a Singapore hospital on September 6 aged 95, was a colonial liberation hero who later turned into the archetypal African strongman.
Like many of his contemporaries, Mugabe was baked in the crucible of the African Independence struggle, leading his people in a bloody war against white supremacist rule. Lasting just under seven years, that war culminated into independence for Zimbabwe in April 1980.
Sensitive to injustice from an early age, Mugabe’s motivation was easy to discern and emblematic of Africa’s aspiration for self-determination.
Driven by a desire to bring social equity to the majority black population that had over the decades been side-lined and progressively boxed into servant-master relationship in their own country; many followed him when he launched an armed struggle against white minority rule after a stint in prison.
After the guns had fallen silent and he was prime minister of what was then Africa’s newest nation, Mugabe set about putting many of his ideas into action.
He re-jigged an ailing economy and spread many of its benefits across the social divide. He is credited with presiding over the development of an education system that became the envy of sub-Saharan Africa.
Yet this legacy of the early years of his tenure is easily forgotten, eclipsed by the excesses of his later years.
Faced with the rise of a formidable opposition, Mugabe did what many of his contemporaries were already doing. He turned Zimbabwe into a one party state, outlawed the opposition and gave himself unbridled power.
Though popular, his attempt to redress a historical injustice by forcefully seizing land from white settler farmers backfired, sending the economy into a spin. As the country sunk deeper into an economic crisis, so did repression grow, sending millions of Zimbabwean’s into exile.
In more than one way, Zimbabwe and Mugabe’s twin legacies are representative of the tragedy of post-independence Africa. Scornful of the colonial master and inheriting economies that held so much promise, many of Africa’s independence heroes nevertheless found the colonial State’s tools of repression too convenient to give up.
Many violently snuffed out dissent, robbing their countries of the alternative views. In the end, their strong-arm tactics only served to preserve dictatorial rule and kleptocracy. Almost across the board, post-liberation leaders have abused their licence, bringing once prosperous economies onto their knees.
In Africa, it is not uncommon to use death to sanitise an indecorous reality. The reaction to Mugabe’s passing has been mixed.
Despite his laudable achievements, his legacy has tended to be defined more by the latter failures of his long political career. That is the kind of tragedy Africa must strive to avoid.
There is no denying that Africa’s past and contemporary history has not been kind to its people. Yet a new beginning is possible only if we can bravely face up to an ugly past. If we can look at our own record through clear glasses, a new and more positive chapter can be written for Africa.