Robert Mugabe – Absolute power turn a People’s Hero into another despot

Robert Mugabe. File photo

 Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Robert Mugabe’s death is being moaned in Africa particularly  in his country Zimbawe which he liberated from the clutches of the tyrannical racist white minority regime that captured power in the name of ‘decolonisation’ once British left Rhodesia in 1964 and his opponents in the Western World and their friends elsewhere including Africa, are celebrating it even when Mugabe was ousted from power in 2017 as all his closed associates revolted and the armed forces indicated to him that they want him to resign.

It is sad that there was not much response from India on the death of Robert Mugabe who happened to a friend of India, a champion of Non Aligned movement along with Dr Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. We did not hear much from the government or the prime minister whose tweets on international issues are easily visible. That also reflects how India look towards Africa which was part of our foreign policy relations in the 1950s during Nehru’s period and later on Indira Gandhi followed it up. Perhaps, it is not a priority area for India at the moment.

Robert Mugabe’s life was not merely colorful but also challenging. His story is that of a hero who became villain at the fag end of his life because he refuse to accept the reality that he cant be the leader of his country forever. The man who led the rebellion against the white minority government of Rhodesia in 1964, arrested for challenging the racist white Prime Minister and kept in jail for several years without any trial. What the British had left in Rhodesia was the transfer of power to the white minority government putting the native people in deep anger and rage reflected often in Robert Mugabe’s speeches.  His political party,  Zimbabwe African National Union ( ZANU), formed in 1973 became the voice of the people of Zimbabwe and fought for the liberation from the white rule.

A revolutionary Marxist in his younger days, Robert Mugabe’s biggest contribution for his country was the confidence and assertion of the native African which ensured he became the unquestioned leader of Zimbabwe since its inception in 1980.  Not only they deleted Rhodesia name from the map but also the capital Salisbury became Harare, signifying the importance of symbols in the victory of the native people. Unlike Nelson Mandela, who became a darling of the Western media who in his initial stages too was declared as ‘terrorist’ by them except the powerful support from Cuban leader Fidel Castro as well as many others who were dedicated to free Africa from the clutches of racism, Robert Mugabe was a hero for some time for the Western World too as long as he did not touch the historical and most important Land issue. But as was his promise, he initiated strong Land Reform processes in 1992, which acquired the land from the white landowners who owned Zimbabwe in real sense and meaning of change in power at the top level was nothing if the Land Reforms were not enacted and land was not acquired from those who looted and sucked the blood of the native people.

Frankly speaking, Robert Mugabe became the biggest ‘villain’ because of his ‘land reform’ initiatives. On the issue of acquiring farm land from the supremacists white minority from erstwhile Rhodesia, the western world was not ready for this much of radical land reforms. In fact, most of the time, land reforms has been a political tool for the powerful countries to dictate terms to the Southern countries but when they unleash radical land reforms which changes power equations, it is highly opposed. The dominance of tiny white minorities in various African countries through their control over land and other natural resources cannot be ignored. One should not forget the fact how Mandela was allowed to become the leader of Africa because he maintained the status quo. The political leadership of the blacks was emerging but the power hub remained with the white. They were the bankers, they were the land owners and slowly the revolutionary leadership too got corrupted by various means. This is how the western exported Parliamentary democracy function in our countries. All these ‘nominal’ democracies actually create despots who are ‘loved’ and ‘respected’ by powerful governments in the Western World except for a few exceptions, as long as they provide them space to control their market and land resources.

There is no doubt that Robert Mugabe too became a despot because the power that he enjoyed unchallenged for over 37 years but we know well how Saudi’s despot is the best friends of the United States, how different military regimes in Pakistan were the darling of the US administration just because they were being used to fight against the Soviet military in Afghanistan.  Mugabe became a prisoner of his own world and in the absence of credible institutions war heroes, ‘revolutionaries’, mass leaders’ often become dictators and despots. This is the story of all the southern countries which we call developing world. India was the sole exception to this where a leader of immense popularity, Jawahar Lal Nehru still committed to secular principles, despite the painful division of the country on the religious lines. Nehru built institutions and the 17 years that he served to India in its nascent stage put the democracy and its institution in perfect place. If India were not having powerful institutions, we would have gone the way our neighbors went, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Srilanka, Bangladesh, China where democracy could not flourished and people remained under the power of the military and dictatorial might most of the time. Many countries turned theocratic where minorities remained unwanted.

One can not ignore the contribution of Mugabe to Zimbabwe’s life. He was an educationist and hence felt the need for quality education. It was no mean achievement that he made Education as fundamental right in his country, where countries have not yet reached.  The focus on public health was another massive achievement that happened under Mugabe. There were other important developmental work like developing tourism and mining industries. He enjoyed immense popularity and people loved his lengthy speeches laced with sarcasm and wits against the Western world particularly the white supremacists. But there is a limit of the people to listen to the jargons and rhetoric. The speeches which were loved by people became boring once Mugabe became the ‘only’ leader of his country. Radical Land Reforms failed to remove poverty and inequality because,  most of it benefitted to his cronies and party leaders. Institutions failed and country was on the verge of financial breakdown after western sanctions against him. While social injustice has to go but it is also important not to bring reverse kind of justice or vengeance. A regime which focuses on fixing opponents rather than resolving the issues of the people ultimately become highly unpopular and at a certain point of time, will have to go. The world has tested democracy now and people will worship leaders and war heroes but will not allow them to corrupt the system and justify every evil act of their in the name of nationalism. Most of the developing countries suffer from this disease where the powerful politicians who might have been heroes or emerged from powerful movements, have turned despots and dictators. They want to cling to power by hook or by crook. They don’t like dissent and have an obsession about their ‘greatness’ and ‘popularity’. Robert Mugabe suffered from all this but he is not alone in all this. It is the trend in our part of the world where politicians who have been democratically elected have subverted all the democratic processes, killed democratic institutions and using the popular media, which was once upon a time vanguard and watchdogs of democracy, to spread false information. We are witnessing erosion of these values because we trusted the leaders without focusing on building institutions and the result is that the trusted leaders often betray people and their emotions, they justify every act of them. Every questioning of their action is termed as antinational and dissenters are put behind the bar, most of the time without Trials. Mugabe faced it in the former Rhodesian regime but he behaved the same way against his political opponents.

Robert Mugabe lived a fulfilled life. He was 95 and felt that he was young enough to lead the country till the military who was loyal to him, decided to act and told him categorically that he want take the country for granted. He will have to resign as it is the people’s will. It was sad day but dictators often want safe passage. Heroes become dictator very easily because we worship them and don’t question them. Fine, the role of our veterans in a particular situation need to be appreciated but that does not give them license to do anything at any time. Robert Mugabe was a hero who inspired many but the absolute power that he enjoyed actually corrupted him thoroughly, resulting in his ouster from the power. We all are mortals and will have to leave. Democracy has provided us opportunity to lead the country or serve it in different capacities. Politicians or leaders who feel they emerged from popular choice must not underestimate people’s choices. You might have been a popular choice at certain point of time but cannot remain forever and this can be communicated powerfully if we have strong institutions with enough check and balance mechanism. Post Mugabe Zimbabwe will have to develop robust democratic institutions so that one individual does not take people for granted. Zimbabwe has already honored Robert Mugabe and his role cannot be forgotten as far as the building of the country is concern, but he would have become far bigger a role model, if he had created institutions and retired gracefully handing over the power to his political associates on time.