Mugabe’s Moment and why his AU Chairmanship Divides Opinion

Note: Over the weekend, The Daily News asked me to do an opinion on President Mugabe’s new Chairmanship of the African Union. I said this is not an easy subject, as President Mugabe is quite a complex character, who means different things to different people. I told them the article would be long – more feature-length than a mere 1,000 word opinion. This is because writing about President Mugabe requires a look at far more than one side and I was not prepared to do that. This is the result of my effort – I tried to look at the man as he is viewed by his supporters and as he is viewed by his critics and how these two different viewpoints inform the reaction towards his current Chairmanship of the AU.

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Mugabe’s Moment and why his AU Chairmanship Divides Opinion

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By Alex BT. Magaisa

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The recent election of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe as Chairman of the African Union, the continental body, has, unsurprisingly, drawn a mixed reception, both within and outside Zimbabwe. To his supporters, it’s a crowning glory for their hero who has championed the cause of Africa and the African all his life, but to his opponents, it’s a toxic moment which demonstrates everything that is wrong with the continental body.

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President Mugabe is a big political character, indeed, a colossal figure who divides opinion in a manner that is unparalleled across the entire continent. And everyone seems to have an opinion about Mugabe.

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The AU Chairmanship is largely a ceremonial position, dutifully rotated among the five geo-political regions of the continent. It was Southern Africa’s turn and with President Mugabe as the SADC Chairman, it was long expected that he would take over as Chairman of the AU. The surprise would have been if he had been rejected as it would have been an embarrassing snub.

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The fact that it was foreseeable and expected has not stopped his political allies and the State media screaming from the proverbial rooftops, announcing it as a major political achievement. This is not entirely surprising. For a country and a leader without much to celebrate in recent times, anything with a hint of positivity must be applauded.

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Thus, ceremonial though it might be, to his ardent followers, this is a crowning moment for their political hero. But, as if to underline its symbolic significance, the ceremonial character of the post has not deterred his opponents from viewing it as a disgusting moment. Such diametrically opposed positions around Mugabe are the norm. He is a hero to some and a villain to others. But how did it come to all this?

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Supporters of Mugabe, both within and outside Zimbabwe, revere him for his bold and stridently anti-imperialist stance. He has carved out a niche as the last of the supremely confident and defiant Pan-Africanist leaders from an earlier generation. Never mind the fact that his opponents accuse him of not practising what he preaches, Mugabe has presented himself as a champion of the struggles of African people, particularly against Western domination.

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He is from the old school of African nationalists, indeed, most of his peers are either long dead or retired. He is 91 this year but he shows no signs of giving up. He still hopes to contest the 2018 elections, when he will be 94.

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He was part of the generation of young Africans who led their people in their resistance against colonialism in the sixties and seventies, leading the prosecution of the liberation war in the then Rhodesia, and culminating in a glorious victory in 1980, when Zimbabwe won independence.

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At the time, Mugabe surprised everyone, especially the sceptics, when he announced a policy of national reconciliation long before the more celebrated version of the same policy by Nelson Mandela 1994 when South Africa got freedom. Mugabe had started it all and his supporters are bitter that he is not given credit for his efforts. Instead, the Western media lauds Mandela and forgets that it was he, who set the trail many years before.

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But back then, in the eighties, Mugabe was a darling of the West, never mind the fact that he stood accused of butchering thousands of black political opponents in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions. He was awarded accolades, including a Knighthood by the former colonial power.

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But the tide turned very quickly a few years later, when Mugabe raised the tempo in his demands for land redistribution. He felt cheated when he was told that the former colonial power did not have any legal obligation to support the land reform programme. He argued that promises had been made at the independence negotiations but now those promises were being broken. At the same time, opposition was also mounting at home as economic conditions tightened.

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It was then that he began a radical land reform programme that would define his politics, his image and, indeed, his legacy across the world. He threw out the rule-book. It was violent, haphazard and without regard to the written laws. He saw the fledgling and popular political opposition MDC party as a mere extension of the Western resistance to his land policies.

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Unsurprisingly, his reaction to the opposition was equally violent and repressive. He was accused of all sorts – repression, violating the rule of law and promoting lawlessness. He was labelled a human rights abuser and a despot. But he did not care. He responded with vitriol against the Western leaders, especially Tony Blair and George W. Bush, whom he accused of unfairly targeting him for fighting for his people’s rights. They, in turn, accused him of hurting his own people.

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Then targeted sanctions were slapped on him and his political allies. He was not welcome to Europe or the US and a few other countries. But still, he was defiant. In fact, he deftly turned the issue on its head and sanctions became the new scapegoat for Zimbabwe’s economic failure. He blamed the opposition for the sanctions, a point that the opposition struggled to contain.

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It was this defiance and his resolute defence of his radical land policy that endeared him to some Zimbabweans and Africans across the continent and beyond. The sanctions were seen as instruments of victimisation and he drew from the well of sympathy across the continent.

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In him, they saw a man who was not easily cowed by the dominant Western forces. They saw an African leader who was being victimised for standing by his people and their interests. He is one leader who when he attends public gatherings in other African countries is given standing ovations.

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One such occasion was the late Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December 2013. Mugabe has always been presented by Western media as the antithesis of the great Mandela. Like Mugabe, Mandela adopted a moderate tone to his politics when South Africa gained independence in 1994, promoting reconciliation and preaching forgiveness. Mandela soon gave up power and retired. In contrast, Mugabe held on to power and became more radical in his demands for land from the minority white farmers.

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To Mandela’s admirers, especially in the West, he was a great leader who steered his country very wisely through a difficult patch. But to Mugabe’s supporters, Mugabe will always be the better man, because unlike Mandela, he went a step further and actually reclaimed land and resources for the black Africans, something that they say Mandela never attempted. Mugabe himself revealed in an interview two years ago that he thought Mandela had been too soft. I suspect he feels a tinge of bitterness, that he is unfairly vilified merely because he dared to be bold.

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But it is for this reason that while Mugabe is viewed as a villain in the West, there are many Africans who, despite his shortcomings, still regard him as a champion of their rights. Hence the moment of irony at Mandela’s funeral, that as the entire world watched, Mugabe was the proud recipient of a standing ovation from the South Africans, an honour that was not accorded to any of the other world leaders in attendance. He had a brief nightmarish moment recently in Zambia when he was heckled by opposition supporters after arriving suspiciously too early for the inauguration, before the election had been concluded. But that is a rare exception in a general pattern where he is cheered and lionised by Africans.

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These supporters, of course, choose to ignore the fact that, in pursuing his brand of politics, Mugabe has also stood accused of stifling the opposition and disregarding fundamental rights, to maintain his long grip on power. In their minds, the means do not matter, rather, they are concerned with the end, which they believe to be supreme and unqualified.

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This favourable view of Mugabe is, in some ways, indicative of the wounds that still fester in Africa at the imbalance of power vis-à-vis the West. The ill-feelings of the past were not wiped away by the grant of independence from colonial rule. There remains a view that the West wants to dominate and to dictate affairs in African countries.

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One example of this is the contentious debate over gay rights and same-sex marriage. There is a strain of resistance to legalising gay rights in many African countries. Apart from South Africa and perhaps a few others, homosexuality is still frowned upon and banned under various countries’ laws on the basis that it is “unAfrican” and “contrary to the natural order”. Some Western countries have tried to tie aid to conditions that recipient states must recognise and protect gay rights. This has been perceived as Western interference and at worst, as bullying.

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Then up stands Mugabe, and he issues yet another note of defiance, bashing homosexuality and Western influence in vitriolic terms. It’s harsh but his voice strikes a chord with the sentiments of many Africans on this issue, as I discovered during the constitution-making process in Zimbabwe. It is not surprising to hear the most ardent critics of Mugabe saying, “He is a bad man and I don’t like his politics, but on this one, on this issue, I agree with him. I think he is right.”

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This is the same with Mugabe and his radical land policy. A Zimbabwean opposition supporter will typically say, “The methods they used were not good, and they could have done it in a better way but on land, Mugabe was right.” The disagreement is not on the principle of land reform and that it had to be done, but on the method with which it was done and the corruption and cronyism that accompanied it.

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But to Mugabe’s supporters, those are minor details, the big issue being that the radical process had to be executed, whatever the means and whatever the outcome. “There was no other way that we could have done it. We had tried the legal means but it wasn’t working. It was too slow”, said one senior Zanu PF functionary in a conversation during the days of the GNU. They, too agreed that the methods had not exactly been proper, but they were adamant that they had done the right thing.

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In recent years, Mugabe has extended his radical policies to land-based resources, such as minerals, demanding that foreign companies should give up 51 per cent of their ownership to indigenous partners.
\nAgain there are disputes over the technical details of how to achieve this and allegations of rent-seeking behaviour and corruption, and how this deters foreign investment which is needed to kick-start the failing economy, but opponents struggle to fault the idea behind it.

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The poor understand and identify with this demand to share resources equally, especially resources in their local areas. The idea makes sense. International legal instruments, such as the Convention on Bio-Diversity, demand measures for equitable benefit sharing with local people. The message strikes a chord with many Africans, whose countries are resource-rich but find themselves receiving very little, while foreign companies remit their profits to the home countries, usually in the West. Nigeria is among the biggest producers of oil, but fuel there is scarce and more expensive than in countries that do not produce oil. And the oil companies are predominantly Western. The natives of Nigeria’s oil-producing Delta region, who have to sabotage pipelines and steal oil at great risk, are more likely to find sense in Mugabe’s ideas of resource nationalism.

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The fact is that many years after independence, while Africa has abundant mineral resources, they are mined and shipped raw to Western capitals and more recently, to China and India, where they are processed and sold at a higher value. Some products are even sold back to Africa, at much higher prices than the raw minerals that were exported.

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Mugabe has of late been preaching the gospel of beneficiation of mineral resources, which also makes sense to many Africans. He has emerged as a champion of resource nationalism and this endears him very well to many people across the continent and beyond.

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But the man who is revered by many Africans across the continent, is reviled by a significant section of his own fellow citizens, who think he has outlived his usefulness as a leader.

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Many from the regions of Matabeleland and the Midlands regions bear ugly scars of the atrocities committed in the 1980s. Mugabe himself has admitted that this was “a moment of madness” but his government has done nothing to deal with the grievances from that period.

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In 2005, his government carried out Operation Murambatsvina, a large-scale exercise whereby urban structures were destroyed on the basis that they were illegal. Livelihoods were destroyed and the exercise was condemned by the United Nations.

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In 2008, after suffering defeat to his bitter rival, the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai, the response was characterised by unmitigated violence against opposition supporters. In the end, the AU and SADC had to intervene to restore legitimacy through a Government of National Unity, whereby Mugabe shared power with Tsvangirai for the next five years.

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Before then, Zimbabwe had suffered a serious economic crisis in which the economy went into meltdown, companies closed, goods disappeared off the supermarket shelves and the Zimbabwean currency became worthless. By mid-November 2008, hyperinflation had peaked to 79.6 billion percent. For a while, most Zimbabweans had become very poor millionaires. They had wads of worthless notes that bought nothing.

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Many Zimbabweans who lived through that period respond with a desperate shake of the head and a sigh, when asked of their experiences. Many blame Mugabe and his poor economic policies but his supporters will tell you that the economic meltdown was not a consequence of their leader’s actions but that it was caused by Western sanctions. This is a message that has been repeated countless times over the years by Mugabe himself and the State media.

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Zimbabweans who oppose his leadership cannot understand what their fellow Africans elsewhere on the continent find so appealing in their leader. They have been with him as their leader for 35 years now and they yearn for change. “They can have him, since they like him so much”, an unhappy Zimbabwean once wrote on social networks after seeing Mugabe receiving loud applause in South Africa at the inauguration of President Zuma last year.

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It is typical of the frustration that his opponents in Zimbabwe feel when they see Mugabe being feted by their fellow Africans who do not have to bear the consequences of his leadership and his policies.
\nThey point to the contradictions between Mugabe’s political rhetoric and what he actually does in practice. They see a man who proudly talks of “African solutions to African problems”, yet at the same time, does not seem to see the irony in the fact that when he and his family want medical treatment, they shun local hospitals, in preference for the expensive medical facilities in Singapore and Malaysia.

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When his daughter was going to university, he sent her not to an African, let alone Zimbabwean university but to a university in Hong Kong. Had the West not closed their doors, he might have gladly sent her to one of the great centres of learning in the West. When she wed her husband last year, most service providers, from wedding planners to caterers were allegedly hired from foreign countries. People look at this and ask why a man who preaches the otherwise good philosophy of indigenisation fails to implement it in his own affairs? They see these contradictions.

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While many Zimbabweans, including his opponents understand the reasons for land reform, and the need for empowerment, they point to the corruption and cronyism that has been allowed to fester under his leadership. While thousands of formerly landless people got land, they also point to the fact that the big Zanu PF politicians got the lion’s share and the best land, most grabbing more than one farm for themselves.

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While many Africans applaud him for taking the land, the poor families in Mazowe are languishing in the middle of the farming season, after being evicted to make way for Mrs Mugabe, the First Lady, although she is already the recipient of other farms. Mugabe comes across as a man who cares for his fellow blacks, but when families were flooded last year in Masvingo Province and had to be relocated to a make-shift camp, President Mugabe never bothered to pay them a visit. When similar floods happened this year, he returned from holiday only to fly away to Zambia for the new Zambian President’s inauguration.

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His Zimbabwean opponents look at these things and cannot recognise the wise, caring and compassionate leader who is widely revered by their fellow Africans. They see a man who is willing to castigate Western imperialism but seems ready to embrace a Far Eastern version of the same.

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But the Africans and others who laud him as a hero of the continent do not have to carry the effects of his leadership.

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Now though, for the next year, he will be the Chairman of their continental body. He has already served a starter and given an indication of what his tenure will be like. He warned that while Africa was in need of friends, it did not need those who wished to impose their will upon the continent. He spoke against imperialism and about the need to ensure Africa benefited from its resources. These are messages that must have received a willing and appreciative audience across the continent.

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This may well be his swansong, as he rides into the sunset of a long and controversial (his supporters will say, glorious) political career, but he is determined to leave his stamp. Things have not been rosy at home and he knows it. He has a messy succession battle to manage within his own severely divided party.

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But he may leave his preferred successor in charge and taking more responsibility on the domestic front, while he criss-crosses the continent, hoping to leave a big mark on the softer and friendlier international stage where mostly big speeches and political rhetoric are the major currency of trade.

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In his mind, his fight has been against the West – the Africans against him have been mere puppets. Now, he must feel that he has defeated them all and he stands at the top of the summit, leading both the regional body, SADC and the continental body, the AU. He is banned from travelling to the US and Europe, but he will use his new position to test the boundaries. The West cannot avoid him.

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He will use the stage to preach his favourite subjects – anti-imperialism, resource nationalism and bashing the West. This will probably endear him to Africans across the continent. He may not have solutions to Zimbabwe’s pressing economic and social challenges, but he has a lot to say about the continent and its struggles with the West. He may have run out of ideas about how to take Zimbabwe forward, but he has plenty of energy, zeal and thoughts about how Africa should resist imperialism.

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The AU Chairmanship might be dismissed by some as a ceremonial role, but to Mugabe and his allies, it is the crowning glory of a long and significant political career.

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But will it add any value to Zimbabwe? Unlikely. This is not exactly Zimbabwe’s moment. Rather, it is Mugabe’s moment. Just as it has always been.

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This article was first published at www.newzimbabweconstitution.wordpress.com and Dr Alex Magaisa can be contacted at wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk