AFRICAN ICON

Robert Mugabe: Hero or villain?

"...I have rejected this white supremacists’ view and frustrated the neo-colonialists."

In Summary

• In 1990, Britain reneged on its promise of land transfer. Mugabe was betrayed.

• What is independence without the land?

My tour of diplomatic duty as Kenya’s High Commissioner to Zimbabwe from 1998 to 2002 took me to Harare, where on a breezy sunny day I presented my Letters of Credence to President Robert Mugabe. After the official events, we had tea on the green, manicured lawns of State House.

Mugabe struck me as a relaxed, listening, interactive, even a playful man. I was with my family. He mingled easily. He would hold and lift up my son Diba, then a lanky 13-year-old Form 1 lad, embrace and take photographs with him. We had such a warm and congenial welcome.

Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980. However, it was different Kenya's. Kenya earned full independence, including the transfer of land. Zimbabwe earned its independence without the transfer of land. It was agreed that land would be transferred in 1990.

 

Mugabe’s search for freedom, equality and social justice became a battle he would fight throughout his nearly four decades in power. In 1965, under the premiership of Ian Smith, white settlers had the audacity to make a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain. This would put Zimbabwe under white minority rule, akin to apartheid in South Africa.

In 1990, Britain reneged on its promise of land transfer. Mugabe was betrayed. What is independence without the land? He was ready to mount another guerilla struggle, or chemurenga.

Zimbabwe is rich. It has one of the best arable lands in Africa. At least 14 precious metals, including gold, diamonds, uranium, copper and platinum are buried under its soil. It is endowed with the abundant fresh waters of the Zambezi, one of the largest rivers in Africa which features the iconic and spectacular Victoria Falls and the Kariba Dam. It is this rich country that Mugabe became a steward of as President, sleeplessly trying to keep greedy, rapacious and profiteering fingers off the cookie jar!

And as a good custodian of his country’s resources, he had to protect Zimbabwe from modern-day thieves. This was Mugabe’s dilemma. He deserves to be understood and accorded respect, and given the right place in history, as an African hero, a friend of Kenya, revered and loved by patriots and understandably loathed by racist bigots.

Zimbabwe’s riches made it a paradise on earth for whites and hell on earth for unsuspecting blacks. Some 200,000 whites settled in British Colonial Africa as World War II veterans. Out of these, 4,500 white commercial farmers owned 70 percent of the best arable land in Zimbabwe.

Indigenous Zimbabweans lived on the periphery of the white economy, dispossessed of their ancestral lands, displaced and disenchanted, eking out miserable livelihoods from stony dustbowls of infertile scrublands and selling their labour to white farmers. Defusing the bomb of the terror of white occupation was Mugabe’s lifelong headache.

The vitriol of white racial supremacists was unleashed on Mugabe. The western-owned media vilified and demonised him as a dictator who stifled democracy. They said he grabbed land from white farmers who were the backbone of the country’s economy. They propped up and generously funded an opposition, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to bring change. Mugabe came out fighting.

Mugabe transferred land from white farmers to indigenous Zimbabweans to the chagrin of the white settlers and their western backers. The West, using its powerful media, terrorised Zimbabwe. It imposed crippling economic sanctions, targeting not just the country but individuals and families linked to Mugabe, curtailing international travel and sending the Zimbabwean dollar into free fall.

 

Hyperinflation hit the economy. Disenchantment with Mugabe’s government, they thought, would make the people rise against him. Mugabe still soldiered on.

Sanctions made Zimbabwe’s membership of the Commonwealth untenable. Mugabe pulled Zimbabwe out of it. Mugabe was accused of violating human rights. His reaction was immediate. "George Bush’s, Tony Blair’s and now Gordon Brown’s sense of human rights precludes our people’s rights to their God-given resources, which in their view must be controlled by their kith and kin. I am termed dictator, even called Hitler, because I have rejected this white supremacists’ view and frustrated the neo-colonialists."

Mugabe’s friction with white supremacists and Lords of Empire touched a raw nerve. They detained him for 10 years from 1964 to 1974. During that time, his three-year-old son, Nhamo, died in Ghana of illness. Mugabe was denied permission to attend his funeral. He could not forget that. No one can.

And as a good custodian of his country’s resources, he had to protect Zimbabwe from modern-day thieves. This was Mugabe’s dilemma. He deserves to be understood and accorded respect, and given the right place in history, as an African hero, a friend of Kenya, revered and loved by patriots and understandably loathed by racist bigots.

Former Kenya Ambassador to Zimbabwe. [email protected]