It is now over one week since President Robert Mugabe resigned as president of Zimbabwe. A lot has been said about him since and for most of his time as leader of his country, most of it negative. But was he such a terrible man that we can find nothing good to say about him?
I am reminded of the words of Mark Anthony regarding the slain Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones…” We might add today, “So let it be with Robert Mugabe”, only that he is still a hale and sound 93 year old.
Mugabe is, of course, no longer president of Zimbabwe. He was pushed aside by his comrades on the grounds of reported abuse of power and excessive ambition of his wife Grace. And so for the love of Zimbabwe (that’s what we are made to believe) his soldiers and lieutenants had him removed from office, to much jubilation.
In the euphoria following his departure, there is a real danger that the good that Comrade Mugabe did might be forgotten, and there was a lot of it for he was not always the demon the western media has painted him.
He belongs to a long line of revered freedom fighters and revolutionaries. In the eyes of many Zimbabweans and other Africans, he is a hero, who stood up to colonial and settler oppression and won, and delivered freedom to his people.
Long years in prison did not break him. They probably focused him more on the task of liberating his country. Upon liberation, he embarked on massive development – in education, healthcare and infrastructure.
That part of the history of Zimbabwe should not be forgotten. Credit must be given where it is deserved. It was therefore gratifying to hear his successor, Emerson Mnangagwa, pay tribute to him as his father, comrade-in-arms and leader.
President Mnangagwa’s words should be a useful lesson to opposition leaders in our region. Not everything their opponents do or have ever done is all bad and must be denounced and demolished. Indeed some of it should be the foundation of any rebuilding.
The thing that most undid Mugabe and overshadowed all his good deeds was the question of land reform – acquisition of land from former white settlers and redistributing it to black Africans. He was clobbered hard on this one, mainly by non-Zimbabweans. Yet it was an issue that had to be resolved one way or the other. Land, after all, was one of the major causes of the war of liberation.
And experience from other countries with a similar land problem where it had not been resolved is hardly inspiring. Land issues remain in Kenya more than fifty years after independence. They are still a source of friction between white and black South Africans.
For all his faults, however, Mugabe has been remarkably consistent. I remember two pronouncements in particular that he made years ago, to which he has remained true.
One was a radio broadcast from Maputo, Mozambique, in which he sought to explain the logic of their liberation struggle. Said he in 1978, “our politics direct our guns; our guns do not direct our politics”. He was affirming the primacy of politics; that the military was only a means to a political end.
To a large degree this has remained a cherished principle, even to his last moments as president. This principle seems to have become deeply rooted in the political culture of Zimbabwe. It didn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that even the coup that eventually removed him had to seek a political and constitutional framework for his removal for it to be accepted. His departure had to be negotiated.
In a sense Mugabe had the last word. And this is the irony – that the most vilified African leader has left a legacy of constitutionalism and the rule of law, even in his own overthrow.
It is testimony to adherence to constitutionalism and to the greater interest of Zimbabwe that there seems to be no lasting rancour between Mugabe and his political opponents. Mr Tendai Biti, former finance minister and member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), urged Zimbabweans to move on. “We cannot afford to let the past imprison our future,” he said in a BBC interview. At his swearing in, President Mnangagwa echoed these words when he pleaded: ”Let bygones be bygones.”
Everyone has a saving grace (no pun intended). This may be one of those things that will not go down with him.
The second was a remark Mugabe made in a speech at the Preferential Trade Area (PTA) Summit, now COMESA, in Kampala in 1987. He said: revolutionaries don’t retire. He was telling President Yoweri Museveni who was taking over the chairmanship of the PTA from Mengistu Haile Mariam, then president of Ethiopia and now exiled in Zimbabwe. His advice appears to have been taken seriously. Museveni seems to have no intention of retiring.
On his part, he lived according to this belief, and one may say, left when he didn’t have much left to offer.
So Mugabe is gone from power. The good he did will probably be forgotten, although it should not. The bad will likely be remembered, if only so that it cannot be repeated. Still, he has left a mark.
The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.