Thursday, November 23, 2017 11:53 am
By Femi Olugbile
It is a quaint title – yes.
Ten years ago, almost, you wrote something you titled ‘Robert Gabriel Mugabe – the end game. ‘
This was at a time when the redoubtable President of Zimbabwe had just bulldozed his way to another election ‘victory’ over his opponent – Morgan Tzvangirai, a victory achieved by hounding opponents out of living space, ‘bashing’ their heads in, and generally deploying all the forces of ‘law and order’ against real or perceived enemies.
This was a man you knew very well, almost like a favourite Uncle at a pivotal moment of your life. He was a man who had won a ‘democratic’ election while everyone, including you – his once-smitten adulator, knew, sadly, he did not have a drop of ‘democratic’ blood in his veins.
And so ten years on, Robert Gabriel Mugabe is still alive, still in office – even if they call him ‘the walking dead’.
Here you are, putting pen to paper, to write about the bizarre end game of a man you once admired more than any other man, again.
And your mind goes back to Heroes’ Acre. It is 1981. Heroes Acre at this time is a dusty plain on the outskirts of Harare, a city still known at the time by its ‘colonial’ name – ‘Salisbury’. You have given yourself a holiday from your studies into the dark recesses of the human mind in Edinburgh, and you are in a place that used to be called Rhodesia, and is now Zimbabwe. In your mind, it is not really a holiday. It is an emotional journey to experience the new frontier of the African Liberation struggle, to thumb your nose at the last bastion of ‘white’ rule in Africa further south, and to proclaim to them – ‘We’re coming to get you!’
It is a journey so emotional you could not keep from crying at some points. You have stood on Cecil Rhodes’ grave, on the undulating grey of the Matopos Hills, and you have felt angry – very angry.
Cecil Rhodes had stood this spot, which he called ‘The View of the World’, and he had looked up into the mist over the rolling hills far ahead, where the hills disappear into the skies.
‘Your hinterland is there’ he had proclaimed to his fellow white men, pointing to the interior of your continent, telling them that the black man’s land and heritage were theirs for the taking – by force of arms if necessary.
‘No’ you have felt compelled to tell Cecil Rhodes, standing on his grave, in the Matopos, in Matableleland, in newly independent Zimbabwe. ‘Your hinterland is there, under the ground, rotten and mouldy.’
You have sat on the cold stone and meditated for what would seem like an eternity, and you have felt you understand the world better in that moment, and your place in it.
1981! Mandela is in prison, on Robben Island. The Liberation Struggle in South Africa is looking as fractured as it could possibly be. While the ANC stalwarts that are not dead or in prison are making threatening noises about a final day of reckoning, the prominent Zulu leader Gatshua Buthelezi is ridiculing the struggle, saying they are merely ‘blowing up dustbins’.
Africa needs hope, and needs cheer, at this time. That cheer is the ascendancy of Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
On this day, on Heroes Acre, a place that is designated for the burial of the heroes of the Liberation Struggle, a crowd of dignitaries, and a large crowd of excited ordinary citizens of the new nation are gathered for the reburial of Herbert Chitepo, one of the nation’s war heroes. On the podium, in the centre of it all, is Mugabe, dark suit, red tie, grim face – as usual. The crowd cheer as various dignitaries arrive and are ushered to their seats. A loud cheer goes up when Oliver Tambo, head of the African National Congress in exile, disembarks from his limousine. It is clear that, in everyone’s mind, victory in Zimbabwe is important, but in the larger scheme of things, Zimbabwe would be a staging post for the final war to free the South of Africa from racist oppression. And what a war that would be. Nobody – nobody on this day, applauding Mugabe and Tambo on Heroes Acre, celebrating the hero of the newly- won struggle and the struggle that is yet to come, could anticipate Mandela, or conceive of the possibility of the Rainbow Nation.
Mugabe! The revolutionary hero, the avowed ‘Marxist-Leninist’ who would tone down his label and rhetoric and become merely ‘socialist’ as the dominoes of the ‘communist’ world begin to tumble, one after another. But that is jumping ahead of the story.
You are aware of the in-built fault lines of the new nation. The Shona-speaking people – Mugabe’s ethnic stock, are the majority of the population, and form the bulk of his party – the ZANU-PF. Their antecedents include the creation of a great city whose ruins are still evident in the stone structures of ‘Great Zimbabwe’, from which the nation takes its name. Much of the rest of Shona history is shrouded in mythology.
There was a great ‘Witch’ Nyanda who was a leader of her people. She mobilized them for ‘the first Chimurenga’ – a liberation war against the first white people who were making incursions into their land. They were roundly trounced by the foreigners, and their heroes were butchered. But even as they licked their wounds, the people saying it in their minds, and telling their children, that there would be a second Chimurenga, and the outcome would be different.
The “Second Chimurenga’ would the liberation war, led – yes, by Robert Mugabe. The first incursion of the army of ‘one hundred thousand’ from Mozambique would be led by Herbert Chitepo, who is being buried on this day in 1981 at Heroes Acre.
The other major ethnic group – the Matabele, are relatives of the Zulus and have a much more organized history as a war-like people. From all accounts, they did not think much of their neighbours, the Shona, and showed them hardly any respect. They had colourful kings such as Mzilikazi and Lobengula who carried out great exploits of courage and viciousness, such as throwing some of their own chiefs off a tall cliff in full view of all. Lobengula actually held negotiations with Cecil Rhodes. What deals they reached of course would fail in the end, and inevitable war would result. Lobengula’s body would never be found by the victorious white man, and so could not be put on display to humiliate his people.
Joshua Nkomo – ‘Father Zimbabwe’ to his ardent supporters, is from Matabele stock, as are many in his ZAPU-PF.
Inherent in the combination of the great nation on the cusp of the liberation struggle already is the seed of doom all too common in the failed modern states of the African continent.
You would come back to Zimbabwe two years later, after the emotional roller-coaster of your holiday, at the completion of your studies, to work, and live on the front-line of African liberation.
Things would be different from now on.
You were assigned to work at Ingutsheni, the government mental health facility in Bulawayo.
The atmosphere of excitement and change you had soaked up a mere two years past had changed palpably. Mugabe had tightened his grip on power. Living in Bulawayo, you sensed resentment from people around you. You also sensed the fear. Mugabe, you heard, was a friend of Kim Il Sung, the dictator of North Korea. As evidence, he had a gang in the army – ‘The Fifth Brigade’ – trained in the most ruthless warfare by the North Koreans. There was talk of an insurgency in Matabeleland led by loyalists of Joshua Nkomo who felt he had been hard done by.
Mugabe unleashed the Fifth Brigade on the whole of Matabeleland. They embarked on arson, public executions and massacres of people accused of being sympathetic to ‘rebels’ in an operation tagged ‘Gukurahundi’ – a Shona word for ‘Wind that sweeps away the chaff before the rains’.
It was said that more than ten thousand people were killed and several more tortured in a display that seemed at once a tyrant’s brutality and a settling of primordial scores. It certainly was not designed to achieve ‘national unity’, not to talk of ‘integration’.
You would leave Zimbabwe eventually with a sour taste in your mouth. Mugabe, the highly cerebral revolutionary who had advanced the frontiers of the freedom struggle in Africa was a man temperamentally unsuited to the nuanced task of leading a complex modern society and taking his people into a bright new future. He would fight with everyone, and agree with nobody. Through it all he would be supported and sustained by the sheer numbers of his grassroots ethnic base, in whose eyes he could do no wrong, and a solid phalanx of ‘war heroes’ who seem to operate on the assumption that the post-liberation state is ‘booty’ for the ‘liberationists’.
Every criticism from every source – the local intelligentsia, the labour unions, the Church, foreign leaders, even the press, local and foreign, merely served to stoke the passion and adulation of his base, and merely served to increase his self-righteousness and the impunity with which he carried out his actions.
He was a man out to right wrongs, ancient and recent. Granted that many of the whites in pre-Independence Zimbabwe had some of the worst racist behavior on earth, it was still hard to conceive of nation-building based on a revenge mission – ‘an eye for an eye’. Land redistribution became a fiasco in which ultimately expropriated land was booty for government officials and ‘war heroes’ rather than land to be put to productive use by the masses to create wealth for the nation.
The nation went bankrupt, and could not feed itself.
Watching and hearing Mugabe over the past thirty years brings a feeling of sadness to the heart. It is like watching your favourite Uncle undergo inexorable decline and public ridicule while you are powerless to stop the ‘show’, or drive the watching public away. This was the man who had hosted Oliver Tambo on Heroes’ Acre. This was an acknowledged and well-respected contemporary of the great Madiba, who midwifed ‘The Rainbow Nation’. This was the man who was going to build the great African state and continental food basket – as evidence to all Africans of what their energies could attain.
Instead, almost half of the young and able-bodied among his people are in self-exile abroad, seeking livable space away from their ‘liberated’ nation.
In 2008, nine years ago, the issue that led to prediction that the end game was at hand was the pyrrhic victory – ‘by fire by force’ – of ZANU over the opposition MDC in shabby ‘national elections’.
This time, the issue at hand is Grace – his erstwhile typist turned Frist Lady who is manoeuvring, like Eva Peron, to become the ‘EVITA’ of Africa.
What is happening to dear old Zimbabwe? Mugabe has clearly read the script of his old friend Kim Il Sung, and the ‘success stories’ of the succeeding ‘Kims’, including the present one who has his finger on the nuclear trigger and is facing up with America.
Perhaps his wife will follow him as President, and then their son, and succeeding generations of Mugabes ad infinitum.
Have Africans truly sunk so low that such a ‘feat’ is possible, and liable to become a reference point?
Perhaps Mrs Museveni will follow as “President Museveni” in Uganda. What is the name of the fellow in Equitorial Guinea – is his wife interested?
It may be the end, mercifully, for ‘Uncle Robert’, this time.
But perhaps it is not. He has that solid ethnic rural base, remember? And he is the most resilient African alive.
Author of the Second Chimurenga. Great Revolutionary and Pan-Africanist. Tyrant extraordinaire.
All rise for Robert Gabriel Mugabe.