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September 7, 2019

Robert Mugabe


September 7, 2019

Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who passed away at the age of 95 in self-imposed exile in Singapore, remains one of the most enigmatic leaders of modern history. He was a man who helped build an independent country and then, step by step, destroy it. Much before Africa’s best known leader Nelson Mandela had left prison on Robin Island, Mugabe was preaching reconciliation between the races and peaceful coexistence within a single territory. He was also a complex figure who ruled his country for 37 years. During that time, he performed miracles such as setting up an education and health system which was rated the best in Africa. But that is not his legacy. Instead, what he left behind in the end – rigged elections, attacks in townships and the forceful seizure of land as the Zimbabwean economy collapsed partially as a consequence of the instability Mugabe caused – is what he may be best remembered for.

Mugabe ruled his country as prime minister from 1980 to 1987 and then as president till 2017. Revered in his early years as a hero who had constructed a country beaten down by colonialism and its various acts of unfairness, his last weeks in power became dominated by a struggle between his wife, Grace, and former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, a well respected veteran of Zimbabwe’s 1970s liberation. Rumours and stories regarding the corruption of the Mugabes began to surface everywhere and respect began to slip away. In the end, Mugabe was sacked by his own party as the economy collapsed and his heroism during the Zimbabwe African National Union efforts to win freedom for his homeland were forgotten.

In some ways, his story is a tragedy. He had come to power bringing in optimism for peasants, trade unionists and political activists in Zimbabwe eager to live in a nation free from British rule. By the 1990s, accusation of election rigging and other offences led to a movement for change being led against him. There were also accusations of a genocide in parts of Zimbabwe based on tribal loyalties. As the collapse continued, Zimbabwe's hopes faded. Breaking his commitment to allow white-owned farms to remain with their owners, Mugabe in 2000 began what he called a land reform programme, handing over white land to landless black people. Many saw this as a crude attempt to win popularity when all else had failed. The result of this policy was chaos. The nation’s economy, ripped by hyperinflation on a scale never seen before the on this scale, became a joke which went well beyond Zimbabwe. With the government unable to control hyperinflation, the US dollar became the de-facto currency in order to bring some order and restore stability. The stability was never to return. Schools and hospitals fell apart, diseases that had been eradicated began to return and people who could chose to leave the country. The political environment became hostile and increasingly tense. Eventually, Mugabe could not bear to give up power and attempted to exert control through force. At the end, though, he opted to leave his country and died in a foreign land. He was in so many ways both a hero and a villain. He may also be ranked as the most complicated politician of our times. But perhaps the most important legacy he leaves behind is a reminder that very long stints in power eventually create a sense of despotism and with it the evils that follow.

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