Chapter In Zimbabwe's History Ends; Mugabe, Legacy as Liberation Hero Eroded, Dies at 95

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Mugabe with the author in New York City in 2002.

Robert Mugabe has joined his ancestors, at the age of 95.

In terms of an intelligent and intellectual African president, he ranks on the same level as Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, South Africa's Nelson Mandela, and Tanzania's Julius Nyerere. Working together with his sometimes rival, Joshua Nkomo,  Mugabe's achievements--the liberation of Zimbabwe from White minority rule--were just as remarkable. 

Mugabe also accomplished a feat which has not been achieved in South Africa and Namibia; the return of the land to Africans from whose ancestors they were stolen when Europeans invaded and colonized Africa in the 19th century.

After his falling out with Nkomo, Zimbabwe's other premier nationalist hero, Mugabe unleashed the army ostensibly to stifle rebellion but soldiers carried out scorched earth operations during which thousands of civilians--some reports say tens of thousands--were killed in Matabeleland. 

In the end, Mugabe also became afflicted with the curse of the African president who stays too long in power. Nelson Mandela was already 72 when he was released from prison, and 76, when elected president. Mandela had become a global icon as the leader of the fight against apartheid even while incarcerated and he enjoyed tremendous prestige. Yet he never considered tinkering with the constitution as a "founding father" and retired from politics after one term. He remained a powerful influential leader even as a private citizen.

It's true that Nyerere was president of Tanzania for a long time--24 years. Yet he too retired in 1985 and remained an influential and important leader for 14 years until his death, helping to set the precedent of smooth transition in his country. Both Tanzania and South Africa --which has been in the news because of the ugly violent attacks against Africans from other countries-- face serious economic challenges. Yet, these are two of the most stable countries in Africa as well, which is credited to the legacies of Nyerere and Mandela.

In Zimbabwe after the British reneged in 1997 on a promise to help finance purchase of land from the White minority farmers, the government encouraged the forceful and sometimes violent seizure of the farms; this led to the deaths of some of the farmers. 

The U.K. and U.S. then led the imposition of debilitating sanctions against Zimbabwe, and the economic collapse accelerated. Hyperinflation was so intense after 2009 that the government stopped keeping figures; by 2015 the country stopped printing its own currency and switched to the U.S. dollar.

The ideal time for Mugabe to retire would have been immediately after the land ownership resorted to Africans. It would have allowed for a culture of political transition of power to take root in Zimbabwe. Instead, Mugabe held on to power while crushing the political opposition led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

Mugabe was eventually eased out after 37 years in power by the military in late 2017, eroding his legacy as liberation hero. There are still reported attacks against opposition leaders under new president Emmerson Mnangagwa; this is regrettable and must stop.

Now with Mugabe's death, a chapter in Zimbabwe's post-liberation history is closed. It's also time for Western countries to provide more breathing space for Zimbabwe by lifting economic sanctions against the country. This can open the door to Zimbabwe's rebirth.




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