ROBERT GABRIEL Mugabe was my hero and that of many other black people internationally when he championed the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe that led to the country’s independence in 1980.
He became the first president. A volume of his speeches, “Our War of Liberation”, takes pride of place on my bookshelf. In it he said: “The first object of our armed struggle is the attainment of total and unfettered independence so we can rule ourselves as we see fit and develop our country in the general interest of the masses.”
As activists, we admired Mugabe’s feisty African liberation rhetoric, which challenged powerful white leaders.
Once, after Gordon Brown had condemned Mugabe’s “criminal regime”, the Zimbabwean president dismissed the then British Labour prime minister as a “tiny dot on the planet” and railed against the “demons in Downing Street”.
Let’s remember that for years, after Marxist “Comrade Bob” signed the draconian Lancaster House Agreement that sealed Zimbabwe’s independence, he was actually popular among Western leaders.
In 1994 the Queen gave him an honorary knighthood. That’s because he stuck to the letter of a deal that included controversially ensuring Zimbabwe’s white minority retained many of its economic and political privileges, for example a guaranteed 20 parliamentary seats.
On the crucial issue of land, most of which was in the hands of white farmers, Mugabe agreed they could keep their ill-gotten property provided the UK and US governments gave financial help that would allow the Zimbabwean government to buy much of it for redistribution among the black population.
The UK and US pretty much went back on this, forcing Mugabe’s government from 2000 onwards to back a movement, spearheaded by black war veterans, that redistributed the land themselves – an action that was greeted with harsh economic sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by the West. It is these sanctions, coupled with economic mismanagement, that turned natural resources and agriculturally-rich Zimbabwe from the breadbasket of Africa to one of its poorest nations. Have these facts been put into the public debate in the West now raging about Mugabe? No.
Has the fact his country has one of the highest literary rates and most skilled workforce in Africa? No.
Mugabe has been turned into a black bogeyman, an affront to the West’s sense of entitlement to continue to control the destinies of their former colonies.
I believe, as someone who has visited Zimbabwe, the radical African nationalist Mugabe of 1980, morphed into a very old leader hooked on power, red carpet and motorcade grandeur and increasingly cut off from reality. He was latterly unable or unwilling to tackle the corruption of his ministers and cronies who grabbed land for their own enrichment and looted the economy with contempt for the masses of people. But no one can remove Robert Mugabe from his vaunted position of founding father of Zimbabwe.