A continental beacon of hope and struggle against imperial domination

By Lovemore Ranga Mataire

PRESIDENT ROBERT Mugabe celebrated his 93nd birthday on 21 February, marking a major milestone in the life of a mortal blessed with the gift of a long illustrious life.

Although people have different perspectives about the man, President Mugabe is much avowed by Zimbabweans as the man who has come to personify their long-held struggle against political and economic domination by colonial Britain.

It is an uncontestable fact that many in Africa view President Mugabe as an enduring symbol of African resolve to assert its dignity and has continued to speak against a skewed international system that denigrates the African voice.

While the West is wont to create the image of President Mugabe as a monstrous dictator, most Africans view him as a symbol of resistance against the bully West and they identity with his humble background as a simple village boy raised by his mother, the late Mbuya Bona near Kutama Mission in Zvimba under the tutelage of some Roman Catholic priests – the Jesuits – in the north-western part of the then Southern Rhodesia.

Born on 21 February 1924, Robert Gabriel Mugabe is the third of six children born to Gabriel Matibiri and Bona, who were both Catholics. His elder brother, Michael, died when he was very young in 1934 while his father, who was absent during most of his upbringing, went to look for work in Zimbabwe’s then most industrious city of Bulawayo.

Mbuya Bona was left to care for young Robert and other siblings. She enrolled young Mugabe at Kutama Mission where he fell in love with his studies. After Kutama, the young bookworm attended Fort Hare University in South Africa and after completion of his degree 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, President Mugabe became publicity secretary for the National Democratic Party (NDP) then led by Joshua Nkomo, a former trade unionist.

The banning of the NDP in 1961 led to the formation of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union in which President Mugabe became the publicity secretary with the late Father Zimbabwe, Dr Joshua Nkomo the president. Zapu’s existence was short-lived, as it was soon to face the same fate that had befallen its predecessor – the NDP. It went underground soon after authorities banned it.

Disagreements on how to execute the struggle against white rule led to the split of Zapu with Mugabe being part of a core group which included the late Enos Nkala, Edgar Tekere and Ndabaningi Sithole that broke away to form the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu). Mugabe became the secretary-general with Sithole assuming the top leadership.

In the midst of fierce colonial resistance, Mugabe married and wedded fellow teacher Ghanaian Sally Hayfron and had a son, Nhamodzenyika, who died of celebral malaria in 1966. Mugabe, who was at the time incarcerated, was not allowed to attend his son’s burial by the colonial regime. Earlier before his son’s death, Mugabe and other fellow nationalists had been arrested by Rhodesian authorities and he was to spend 10 years in prison with minimal contact with the outside world.

As an avid scholar, Mugabe studied among other programmes, law with the University of South Africa and the University of London by correspondence while in prison. His astute leadership qualities were soon to become apparent to his compatriots who saw it fit to elect him leader of Zanu after a vote of no confidence had been passed on 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 and 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 guerrillas, whose military leadership comprised the late Josiah Magama Tongogara and Rex Nhongo.

It was in Mozambique that ZANLA forces launched military raids into Southern Rhodesian and inflicted a lot of casualties on Ian Smith’s superior army, leading first to the Geneva Conference and later the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference in London, which culminated in the holding of general elections that were 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 Joshua Nkomo in December 1987, which brought peace and tranquillity, 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 as the president, while Nkomo and the late Dr Simon Muzenda became 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 seen the country having the highest literacy rate on the continent.

Between 1989 and 1994, Mugabe was forced to dismiss ministers and party associates after being implicated in corruption involving the sale of vehicles at Willowvale Motor Industries plant.

Faced with an opposition largely sponsored by white commercial farmers and the former coloniser, Britain, Mugabe embarked on the land reform programme, 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 5,000 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 land-locked country. Through Mugabe’s leadership, Zimbabwe was to promulgate the Look East policy premised on utilising 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.   

The quest for unity has always been a universal sentiment that spurred nationalistic thought and galvanised people in achieving greater heights.

Sun Yat-Sen is still regarded as the father of the Chinese nation because of his unshakable belief in unity.

Even the Pan-Arabism and Ba’athist movements were also ideologically premised on the idea of unity of the Arab nation.

Closer to our times, the European movement of the World War II period also carried this view of unity as a central tenet in achieving greater goals. It is, therefore, no surprise that nationalists like Mugabe view unity as the central and undying theme in ensuring that Africans triumphantly achieve economic development and political autonomy.

Indeed, it is an observation that one of the key issues that have remained an unfinished project on the conscience of Mugabe is the continued fragmentation of African states. President Mugabe’s exasperation with the lack of African unity was aptly captured in his speech at a luncheon soon after his inauguration on 23 August 2013.  In that speech, Mugabe lamented the way people of Africa have lend themselves to control by Western powers.

“We are no longer strong. We sit with Westerners in their forums to decide on action against other African countries. We should never do that. But that happened.

“When we had an attack on Libya, we had three (African) countries in the Security Council, which agreed with Western countries that there should be action taken against Libya under Chapter 7 of the Charter of the United Nations, which allowed Nato to come and we know what happened. The situation there is in turmoil.” Among his audience were former presidents Kenneth Kaunda, Thabo Mbeki and Festus Mogae.

With a recognisable tone of frustration, President Mugabe evoked the spirit of the founding fathers of African Unity whose ethos risked being completely erased by Western dominion.

So what has gone wrong? What has impinged the dream of a united African voice?

Why has the European Union, which borrowed a lot from the OAU, managed to speak with one voice when it comes to issues concerning security and their survival and yet Africans have failed to agree even on mundane issues?

Indeed, what has led to the failure to institutionalise a firm, universal and concrete African unity?

Many hoped that (Kwame) Nkrumah’s speech at the Old Polo Ground in Accra on March 6, 1957 where he announced that “the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked with the total liberation of Africa” — was to set the tone for real substantive unification of all African states but alas this has remained just a mirage.

Although Nkrumah’s policy and pronouncement led to the creation of facilities or various sorts for the prosecution of the anti-colonial struggles with the Bureau of African Affairs in Accra becoming the focal point of activity in support of the struggles led by people like Joshua Nkomo (Rhodesia), Felix Moumie (Cameroon), Holden Roberto and Agostinho Neto (Angola), Eduardo Mondhlane (Mozambique), Milton Obote (Uganda), Sekou Toure (Guinea) and Modibo Keita (Mali), the verve diminished following the rift between the Monrovia and Casablanca groups.

In the words of Kwesi Kwa Prah in ‘The Wish to Unite — The Historical and Political Context of the Pan-Africanist Movement’, “the split between the Monrovia and the Casablanca groups in 1961 underscored the entrenchment of divergent interests and different views to the way forward”. It came as no surprise then that the birth of the Organisation of African Unity on May 1963 was more of a continental (regional) association than a federation of states as Nkrumah had envisaged.

In its Charter, the OAU simply expressed the wish to promote unity and asserted the sovereign equality of all member states and upheld the non-interference in the internal affairs of member-states.

In other words the genesis of the contradictions that have stalled real tentative unity among member states must be contextualised within the framework of notable speeches by two major protagonists of that era.

In his address to the Ghana National Assembly on 8 August 1960 against the background of the crisis the background of a crisis in the Congo created by the presence of Belgian troops and the secession of Katanga province, Nkrumah argued that; “The African struggle for independence and unity must begin with political union.

“A loose confederation of economic co-operation is deceptively time delaying. It is only political union that will ensure uniformity in our foreign policy protecting the African personality and presenting Africa as a force important to be reckoned with.” Mugabe is a true living legend, who deserves a coveted place in the canon of African nationalism and liberation.

February 2017
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