Written by Alan Cowell
It was April 1980, and I was among the crowd serenaded by Bob Marley and the Wailers when Britain’s Union flag was lowered to be replaced by a new banner. A whiff of tear gas floated over a wall at the Rufaro soccer stadium in Harare, the capital of the nascent state of Zimbabwe.
Prince Charles was on hand to formally relinquish control of his country’s last African colony. A slender, bespectacled man who would become one of Africa’s most notorious despots was about to secure a prize he had long coveted.
At midnight, Zimbabwe — the former Rhodesia — became Africa’s newest independent state, and Robert Mugabe, the clear winner of internationally supervised elections just weeks earlier, was its first prime minister.
It was a crowning moment. A seven-year war had ended in victory for the nationalist guerrillas, and Mugabe was about to start on a trajectory that led from democratic roots to an inexorable gathering of power unto himself.
And until his ouster in 2017 and his death, announced Friday, the tantalizing riddle of the Mugabe regime was the question of what had turned a hero of Africa’s liberation — and self-proclaimed champion of universal suffrage — into a despot.
As a young Reuters correspondent, I covered some of the final years of the war from neighboring Zambia and from Zimbabwe itself. Later I was a frequent visitor to Zimbabwe on behalf of The New York Times.
This was the pre-internet era. During a cease-fire that preceded the festivities in Rufaro stadium, I had sent my reports from remote bushlands by carrier pigeon. At the independence ceremony, I telephoned confirmation of the flag-raising by hand-crank telephone to a Reuters bureau, where the news was passed on by a telex machine.
From today’s vantage, it could be argued the war that brought Mugabe to power in Zimbabwe was the product of an equally bygone era, framed variously by the struggle against colonialism, the rivalries of the Cold War and the unbending obduracy of white minority rulers.
In the late 1970s, the rickety passenger airplanes that landed in Salisbury, as the capital Harare was then known, did so in a steep and gut-wrenching spiral to avoid anti-aircraft missiles. The gallows humorists of the day, mimicking flight attendants, told travelers to turn back their watches to the 1950s.
That decade had been a golden age for white settlers drawn from the deprivations of postwar Britain to the sunlit uplands of a distant colonial outpost. For whites, even in war, Rhodesia was caught in a time warp of country clubs and drinks at sunset on shaded terraces scented by bougainvillea and jacaranda.
By contrast, the black majority endured segregation in urban townships and in rural reserves, denied access to the most fertile land and often serving whites in menial roles as housekeepers, gardeners, laborers and farmhands.
Those two bitterly divided worlds spawned a conflict from 1972 to 1979 marked by brutal tactics on both sides, with fighting spilling into neighboring states that harbored the nationalist guerrillas.
Mugabe, who sought to overturn the majority’s racially defined status as third-class citizens in the country of their birth, drew inspiration from Mao’s doctrine of liberation through the barrel of the gun. The prevailing political orthodoxy he embraced favored one-party states, not democracy. Once secured, power was rarely relinquished voluntarily.
With the announcement of Mugabe’s death at the age of 95, it struck me that he, too, had been caught in an era — the liberation era — that has been overtaken by newer times. He was unable to shake off the recourse to violent ways, a path embraced by many of his contemporaries, as the legitimate counter to violent oppression. Maybe he, too, was trapped in a time warp of his own making.
That is probably too charitable an interpretation of the increasing ferocity of Mugabe’s intolerance of dissent as he tightened his grip on the reins of power in independent Zimbabwe, promoting himself from prime minister to executive president, sidelining political rivals and unleashing military force on civilians.
Yet for all the trappings of power he had, it was sometimes tempting to think that he was not at ease — and always suspicious of those around him — for good reason. It was no coincidence that he was replaced by one of his closest aides, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
At the start of his rule, there were signals of a possibly different path. While Mugabe had reason enough for bitterness toward the white authorities, who had imprisoned and reviled him, he offered reconciliation with the minority and a new start for the majority in his first broadcast to the nation as prime minister.
In the 1980s, he devoted much energy to an expansion of secondary education that made Zimbabweans some of the best-schooled in southern Africa.
In the early 1980s, in Harare, a resident might have been forgiven for thinking the peace settlement ultimately reached was one of Africa’s greatest ever diplomatic transformations.
But there was always a duality to him. I first met Mugabe in the mid-1970s as I traveled between guerrilla headquarters in Zambia and Mozambique and on to peace conferences in Geneva, Malta and London, where he came under immense pressure from his African supporters to agree to the negotiated settlement.
In private moments, unnoticed by him, I had seen him rail against his aides as he sought to cement his authority among the increasingly powerful commanders of the guerrillas who fought white rule in his name. (One such commander, Josiah Tongogara, died in a car crash in Mozambique in late December 1979, provoking never-resolved suspicions of foul play).
But in that same era, former guerrilla forces fought murderous pitched battles with government troops, clashes that offered a prelude to the massacre of civilians by Mugabe’s North Korean-trained 5th Brigade in 1982.
A decade after independence, the black majority’s hunger for land drove a mass takeover of white-owned farms, encouraged by Mugabe.
Mugabe’s rule offered conflicting narratives of violence and a fragile inclusiveness, a powerful impulse to dictatorship barely cloaked by lip service to democracy.
In the end, muscle always won out over moderation. Even at the best of times, Mugabe was a reluctant peacemaker, as his enemies — real or imagined — discovered to their cost.