At the ripe age of 95, death has finally taken away Zimbabwe’s former leader, Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Initially hailed as a courageous freedom fighter, who led the guerrilla movement that liberated his country from decades of white minority rule, Mugabe died in exile in Singapore last Friday after losing the battle with his failing health. Mugabe’s role as a liberation fighter resonates with the African elite, but the ordinary Zimbabwean is still feeling the effects of his 37-year misrule.
Not surprisingly, African leaders have been swift to pay him tributes in recognition of his doggedness that transformed Rhodesia from white minority rule to independent Zimbabwe in 1980, when he assumed power. From his base in Mozambique, he had formed a guerrilla movement that fought the British-backed white minority regime to a standstill, securing independence for his country. At that point, he was regarded as a hero. But despite his sterling contributions to his country’s development, recent history will judge him harshly.
At independence, Zimbabwe, with a pleasant climate, was regarded as a favourite destination by global investors. With ample investment in education and health services, the Southern African country had a life expectancy of 60 years and a buoyant economy. His ZANU-PF-led government embarked on robust economic policies: expenditure on education and health tripled between 1979 and 1990, while a living minimum wage was introduced. The country once had one of Africa’s highest adult literacy rates that, at a lower 83.6 per cent today as estimated by UNESCO, is still among the top 10 compared to Nigeria’s 59.6 per cent. Its health care delivery system, in pursuit of a constitutional guarantee of access to health, witnessed marked improvements that saw massive penetration of basic health services to the rural areas, where most of the population resided. Of the 1,848 health facilities, 86 per cent were located in the countryside by 2015.
This dream of a prosperous nation however changed within two decades under Mugabe, a highly educated man who had seven degrees. Shortly after independence, he turned against his allies, beginning with Joshua Nkomo, the respected nationalist icon. With the Gukurahundi campaign, he launched a vicious crackdown on his perceived opponents in which 20,000 people became casualties. His subsequent economic policies were disastrous, leading a quarter of the population to flee into exile. The most infamous of this was the land reform policy that violently annexed the farm holdings of the whites, and redistributed them to Zimbabweans, who mismanaged them. Most of the land went to cronies, army officers and ZANU-PF members.
In all this, he became power drunk. At the height of his delusion, he once declared infamously, “Only God, who appointed me, will remove me.” He schemed and conspired with the army to rig elections repeatedly until the same military, apparently afraid of Mugabe’s wife – Grace – succeeding the husband, toppled him in November 2017. By that time, he had spent 37 years in power, replaced by his former military sidekick and enforcer, Emmerson “Crocodile” Mnangagwa.
His rule became a byword for dictatorship, corruption and inefficiency which resulted in starvation, disease, brutality and the collapse of the country’s currency. Under him, hyperinflation became rife; hospitals ran out of medicine; tuberculosis, HIV, malaria, and other diseases spread like wildfire. Cholera fatality rates were 10 times higher than the rest of the world. In short, Mugabe bequeathed a failing state legacy to Zimbabwe.
Like the typical “African Big Man,” he bent all state institutions to service his personal rule. Elections were a sham and political succession a deadly struggle between factions. The army that should be subordinate to civil authorities became the determinants of power, as Mugabe gifted them frequent salary increases and empowered them to violently crush his opponents to secure their allegiance. Today, the military, the major beneficiary of rampant corruption that only revolted to prevent his wife, Grace, from the succession, is the power behind Mnangagwa. It is a fragile thread that is prone to instability. In the end, Mugabe will be remembered for the destruction he wrought, not for the social programmes of his early years.
But will African leaders learn any useful lessons from Mugabe’s rise and fall? Like Mugabe, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, who “won” his seventh presidential election last year, has already spent 37 years in office. Another sit-tight ruler is Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, who shot his way into office in a military coup in 1979. He has the title of the longest ruler in Africa, with the prospect of outlasting the late Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, who was consumed in the 2011 Arab Spring revolution after spending 42 years in office. Also toppled in the Arab Spring was the Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak, a man who came to office after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. The 91-year-old former leader had ruled for 40 years before he was kicked out by the military.
The problem is the significant leadership accountability gap in Africa. The Economist’s 2018 Democracy Index finds that more than 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have authoritarian governments. African people should refrain from worshiping or venerating their leaders. There is an urgent need to embrace a civic political culture that enables nations to develop stable democratic processes. By holding leaders to account, Africans should reject the tradition and social norms that tolerate an autocratic form of government. They should be made to understand that without them there are many other leaders who can mount the saddle and do a good job. Civil society groups and regional blocs should continue to put pressure on sit-tight rulers, who have become a shame to Africa, to leave office.
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