Written by Lovemore Ranga Mataire
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe celebrated his 92nd birthday on the 21st of February this week marking a major milestone for a mortal whose life has bestrode his country and continent’s political landscape like a colossus.
Many people have different perspectives about Mugabe but for most Zimbabweans, he is the man who has come to personify their long held struggle against political and economic domination from the country’s former colonisers – Britain.
And to most in Africa, Mugabe has become an enduring symbol of African resolve to assert their dignity and has continued to speak against the skewed international arena that denigrates the African voice.
It is no wonder that wherever he has gone, either as the African Union or SADC chairperson Mugabe has been received rapturously as a hero who against all odds has become the lone continental voice of conscience.
While the West would always want to create an image of Mugabe as a monstrous dictator, most Africans identify not just with Mugabe’s stance against the West but also with his roots as a simple village boy raised by his mother, Mbuya Bona, under the stewardship of Roman priests – the Jesuits at Kutama Mission in Zvimba District north-west of the then Salisbury, in Southern Rhodesia.
Born on February 21, 1924, Robert Gabriel Mugabe is the third of the six children born to Gabriel Matibiri and Bona, both of whom were Roman Catholics. His elder brother, Michael, died when he was very young in 1934 while his father went to look for work in Zimbabwe’s then most industrious city of Bulawayo.
Mbuya Bona was left to care for the young Mugabe and other siblings including enrolling the young Mugabe at Kutama Mission where he fell in love with his books. After Kutama, the young Mugabe attended Fort Hare University in South Africa. After completion of his degree, he came back to the then Rhodesia and taught at various schools including Hope Fountain and Tegwane Mission.
He later went to teach in independent Ghana, where he was enmeshed in Marxism and African nationalism. After returning to Southern Rhodesia around 1960, Mugabe became publicity secretary for the National Democratic Party (NDP), then led by Joshua Nkomo, a former trade unionist. After the banning of the NDP in 1961, Mugabe became the publicity secretary of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union also led by Nkomo. ZAPU had a short life for it was soon banned and went underground.
Following disagreements on how to executive resistance against white rule, Mugabe was part of a core group which included the late Enos Nkala, Edgar Tekere and Ndabaningi Sithole that broke away from ZAPU to form the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and became its secretary-general.
In the midst of colonial resistance, Mugabe married fellow teacher Ghanaian Sarah Hayfron and had a son Nhamodzenyika who died of cerebral malaria in 1966.
In 1964, Mugabe and other fellow nationalists were arrested by Rhodesian authorities and he spent 10 years in prison. His love of letters blossomed in prison where he studied among other programmes law from the University of South Africa and the University of London by correspondence. His astute leadership and adept intellectualism saw him being elected leader of ZANU after a vote of no confidence in Ndabaningi Sithole’s leadership.
After his release from prison in 1974, Mugabe and Tekere daringly crossed to Mozambique in the dead of the night assisted by the late Chief Rekayi Tangwena, a legendary traditional leader known for leading resistance against colonial attempts to displace him with his people from the Gairesi Ranch in Manicaland province, on the border with Mozambique.
Upon arrival in Mozambique, Mugabe assumed the leadership of the ZANLA guerillas whose military leadership comprised of the late Josiah Magama Tongogara and Rex Nhongo. It was in Mozambique that ZANLA forces launched military raids into southern Rhodesian and inflicted so much casualties on the side of the colonial side that Ian Smith agreed to negotiate first at the Geneva Conference and later at Lancaster House in London, which culminated in the holding of general elections resoundingly won by Mugabe and his ZANU party.
One of Mugabe’s major milestones as a leader was in the manner in which he halted early internal disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands provinces caused by former disgruntled PF-ZAPU cadres who had turned dissidents. Without any outside mediation, Mugabe consummated the Unity Accord together with ZAPU leader Nkomo in December 1987, which brought peace and tranquility, a feat that even the country’s detractors hailed as the mark of an astute statesman. The new amalgamated party became ZANU-PF with Mugabe being the President and Nkomo together with the late Dr Simon Muzenda being co-Vice Presidents.
In 1987, the position of Prime Minister was abolished and Mugabe assumed the new office of executive President of Zimbabwe. Mugabe has consistently won elections in 1990, 1996, 2002, 2008 and 2013.
Mugabe added another feather on his cap through his ability to expand the education sector to cater for the previously marginalised majority black Zimbabweans, a feat that has made the country have the highest literacy rate on the continent.
Between 1989 and 1994, Mugabe was forced to dismiss ministers and party associates when corruption was revealed at the highest levels of government. Faced by an opposition largely sponsored by white commercial farmers and the former coloniser Britain, Mugabe embarked on the land reform which was meant to correct historical injustices where indigenous blacks were displaced from fertile lands to give way to minority whites that numbered not more than 5000 yet occupied 75 percent of arable land.
Irked by Mugabe’s insistence on the fast track land reform programme, Britain and its European allies, including the US, imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, a development that has since stifled economic growth for the landlocked country. Through Mugabe’s leadership, Zimbabwe was to promulgate the Look East policy premised on utilizing the historical relations cultured during the struggle with countries in the Eastern bloc, particularly China and Russia.
It was the Look East policy that was to stabilise the economic prospects of Zimbabwe much to the chagrin of Britain and the US which wanted to install a new regime through their sponsored proxy – the MDC led by former trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai. Despite Western vilification, African states have continued having confidence in Mugabe’s leadership as exemplified by his taking over the leadership of both the African Union and SADC. It was during his reign that he reinforced the need for harnessing local resources in funding the two organisations instead of relying on external donors.
He also emphasised the need to accelerate the continent’s industrialisation through beneficiation and value addition of the continent’s resources.
Besides the issue of value addition, Mugabe has advocated the reformation of the United Nations Security Council which he said lacked the current demographic balance. All the issues raised by Mugabe resonated well across the continent and what is left is for African states to once again reignite the pan-African spirit that united them in the fight against colonialism to fight global economic disparities.
Mugabe is a true living legend who deserves a coveted place in the canon of African nationalism and liberation.