Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for nearly four decades before he was ousted by the military in 2017, was a representative figure among Africa’s anti-colonial nationalists. Like Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Patrice Lumumba in Congo, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Leopold Senghor in Senegal, Ben Bella in Algeria, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Mugabe too had led his country to freedom, promising to remove poverty and usher in prosperity. But, like some of his illustrious contemporaries and predecessors, he too overstayed in office and turned into an authoritarian ruler. As the promise of liberation faded and the country began to fall apart, Mugabe, almost as if following a pattern, centralised power, banned all opposition and ruled with an iron-fist, until his luck ran out and he had to leave the office.
Announcing Mugabe’s demise, Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa called him “an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten.” Every word is true, but so is the sharp criticism in many quarters that Mugabe rule left Zimbabwe in ruins. Soon after he negotiated independence from Britain in 1980, Mugabe spoke about reconciliation with the white minority that had oppressed the native communities, and of building a multi-racial society.
This was in sharp contrast to many African nationalist governments which had sought to rebuild their society and economy by expelling minority communities that controlled the resources. However, Mugabe’s reconciliation project was stymied by the reality on the ground, where almost all arable land was owned by the white minority while its former colonial ruler, Britain, refused reparations to facilitate distribution of resources. Zimbabwe’s largely agrarian economy collapsed in the wake of land seizures in the last decade, leading to hyperinflation, corruption and collapse of the state itself.
Mugabe’s record mirrors similar failures elsewhere in the African continent, where a host of nationalists had failed to translate the imagination of the anti-colonial struggles they led to building successful democracies. Ideas like Pan Africanism, African socialism, Pan Arabism and Negritude could not transcend the logic of capitalism and the nation-state.
The transition from colony to the republic was also complicated by Cold War politics and the reluctance of the former colonial powers to let go of their influence. The projects of nationalisation and socialisation of resources of these leaders could not meet the needs and aspirations of their people. The contradictions that emerged out of the clash between ideals and reality turned many of these leaders into authoritarian rulers, if not outright despots, tainting their legacies in enduring ways.