Mugabe’s Legacy: Independence, Plunder and Despair
Robert Gabriel Mugabe has died at age 95. Still seen by many throughout Africa as a symbol of the struggle against colonialism, that legacy is tarnished by the brutal repression of dissidents, rampant looting of state coffers, lavish personal spending, and the overall neglect of Zimbabwe and its people. Mugabe was a brilliant man and a cunning political operator whose network of patronage and repression made him a cult-like figure who was both respected and feared. From his beginnings as a liberation hero, Mugabe presided over the cataclysmic decline of Zimbabwe’s economy and tarnished what was once considered the jewel of Africa. For me, in particular, Mugabe’s near four-decade reign will be marked by several key narratives and moments.
The Independence Hero
Following a bitter and protracted liberation struggle, at independence Robert Mugabe was welcomed by the black majority population as the liberator of Zimbabwe, winning a resounding electoral mandate in 1980. His government carefully navigated racial imbalances and built confidence with the white business community, promoted education and achieved modest rates of economic growth. However, by the late 1990s, Mugabe began to face increasing challenges to his rule. Thereafter, his government turned to brutal repression and patronage to regain political support with drastic, long-lasting consequences for the economy.
The Mugabe regime did not waste time in presiding over what many scholars have referred to as a genocide in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces. Known as Operation Gukurahundi, the Mugabe government orchestrated a campaign that left an estimated 20,000 civilians dead. The operation – organized to weed out political ‘dissidents’ – led to the massacre by North Korean-trained soldiers of entire villages, including innumerable women and children. The violence was politically and ethnically motivated, meant to squash the liberation-turned-opposition movement Zimbabwe African Peoples’ Union (ZAPU). Gukurahundi proved to be a critical point in the militarization of the Zimbabwean state. The conflict also established a culture of impunity and violence against Zimbabwe’s political opposition, which continues to this day.
Violent Land Reform
Of the many controversies that will define Mugabe’s legacy, perhaps none other will be as lasting as the violent land seizures of the early 2000s. Mugabe presided over a state-sponsored “land redistribution” plan, killing and dispossessing white commercial farmers in the process. The government claims that a total of 6,000 white farmers have been replaced by 245,000 black Zimbabweans. However, independent reports suggest a politically connected elite – military officers, cabinet ministers and governors, senior party officials, judges, as well as the former president and his wife – control close to half of the land seized, amounting to nearly 5 million hectares of prime agricultural land. The capture of farms led to the deterioration of agricultural production, transforming Zimbabwe from a self-sufficient food producer to a donor-driven food-aid recipient.
Corruption and Patronage
To consolidate his power, Mugabe built a robust system of patronage to reward political allies and maintain loyalty, which has left Zimbabwe with a politicized, inefficient bureaucracy that accounts for over 60% of GDP expenditures per year. Corruption remains rampant, and offenders have not been prosecuted. At the same time, corruption allegations have been routinely used as an expedient tool to expel political foes from within the ruling party. Unsurprisingly, Zimbabwe is now ranked amongst the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Undermining the Rule of Law
Mugabe systematically undermined the rule of law by intimidating judges and appointing pliant public prosecutors. Former Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay, as just one example among many, resigned under immense political pressure after he passed a judgement seeking to compel the government to stop violent land evictions. Judges perceived to be independent have often been targets of intimidation, and in response, they have either resigned or forced into premature retirement. Mugabe also pioneered the use of selective prosecutions to target political opponents and influence judicial outcomes, especially in political cases.
Put simply, Mugabe presided over the total collapse of the Zimbabwean economy. When the government came under pressure for democratic reform in the late 1990s, ZANU-PF policies turned increasingly capricious and driven by patronage. The un-budgeted gratuities to war veterans, the costly military intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and runaway corruption precipitated economic implosion. By 2008, Zimbabwe’s inflation reached a rate of over 3.2 quintillion percent, and the economy shrank from an estimated $9 billion in 1997 to a meager $4 billion. Unemployment also rose to over 90 percent. Today, Zimbabwe is again teetering on the brink of collapse with a massive fiscal deficit, a shortage of foreign currency, and low levels of production.
One of the most toxic legacies of the Mugabe era — one that has not been adequately discussed — has been the installation of political elite, born from the liberation struggle, who feel personally entitled to Zimbabwe’s natural wealth as if it were their own. Today, the ZANU-PF ethos remains rooted in the idea that those who fought for liberation deserve to reap the benefits of peace and use this narrative to justify their wanton theft.
Violence and Electoral Manipulation
Faced with growing challenges from the political opposition, Mugabe often turned to the military, beginning in the early 2000s – as he had done with Gukurahundi twenty years earlier – to repress dissent and undertake electoral manipulation to maintain power. Mugabe mobilized the military, the war veterans, and ruling party youth brigades in the violent electoral campaigns from 2000-2008, which included the mass torture, abuse, rape, and disappearances of opposition supporters and civic activists. In 2008, as a result of the worst social violence since independence, Mugabe and other ZANU-PF leaders were placed under targeted international sanctions by several Western countries, many of which remain in place today.
The implications of Robert Mugabe’s misrule will continue to be felt far and wide. Zimbabwe’s developmental capacities have been undercut by a predatory elite, which relies on violence and patronage to retain power and accumulate wealth at all costs. Fundamental political and economic reforms are urgently needed to reorient a democracy in which human development is secured. However, this large-scale reform will come at a political cost to ZANU-PF — and their leaders know it — as it will surely undermine the repressive capacity and systems that maintain loyalty of the party’s constituencies. Meaningful reforms will therefore require a broader shift, not only within ZANU-PF, but also in society writ large, one that eyes a more inclusive vision for the benefit of all citizens, not merely a select and powerful few who steal from us with impunity.
Jabusile Shumba is a Zimbabwean political and economic analyst. He is the author of Zimbabwe’s Predatory State: Party, Military and Business (University Of KwaZulu-Natal Press 2018). You can follow him on Twitter at @JabuShumba
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of Vanguard Africa or the Vanguard Africa Foundation.