Robert Mugabe and the ‘Benevolent Dictator’ myth


Mr Mugabe was a prominent figure during Zimbabwe’s fight for independence

Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe began his political career as a fire-breathing Marxist and an unrepentant crusader against Western colonialism. However, he died in the lap of luxury a few days back in a five star Singaporean hospital; a virtual rags to princely riches story in Southern politics.

At the time of his death Zimbabwe was a country, apparently, of empty food shelves. A politician of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions was this ‘founding father’ of independent Zimbabwe, but decades into ‘political independence’ Mugabe’s story should not strike the political watcher of the global South as something to be wondered at.

Today, among the South’s ruling circles his rise to the position of a self-aggrandizing political strongman and despot is the norm rather than the exception. His is a familiar story in the African, Asian and Latin American continents but it is beyond question that Mugabe was a force to reckon with in modern African politics and a trail-blazer of sorts.

In the late seventies and in the early eighties Mugabe captured the imagination of the South’s younger progressives in particular on account of his apparent commitment to socialism and his ‘no-holds-barred’ opposition to Western colonialism and imperialism. He stuck doughtily to his ‘guns’ against the white minority Ian Smith administration of the sixties and seventies decades in Zimbabwe, which was a veritable proxy of British imperialism in Africa.

Despite being forced into exile in neighbouring Mozambique, he led an armed, bloody guerilla struggle against the white regime at home for years through his ZANU-PF party. He saw Zimbabwe through to British-supervised independence in 1980 and became Zimbabwe’s first native head of government. Needless to say, he ruled with an iron fist but was lionised at home and abroad for his seeming unswerving commitment to socialist principles, national independence and Non-alignment.

However, years into ‘independence’ it became apparent that Mugabe was going the way of all rulers of Southern Banana Republics. To begin with, he ensured that there were no rivals to his pinnacle position. Veritable comrades-in-arms in the guerilla struggle, such as Joshua Nkomo, were soon sidelined, forced into exile or coerced into silence. Very soon, the Zanu-PF was the only effective political party in Zimbabwe with Mugabe presiding over the country as the unchallenged ruler. With the coercive power of the state at his disposal Mugabe could do all this and more.

Needless to say, Mugabe cut a very sorry figure on the economic management front. It is reported that he got off to a fairly good start by launching a number of welfare measures that benefited the people for some time, such as, the provision of state-aided education and the supply of essential food requirements, but there was no socialist experiment worth speaking of. Very soon Zimbabwe earned a huge notoriety for its financial mismanagement. No so long ago inflation had sky-rocketed to such dizzying heights that the country’s currency had absolutely no value. There was no food to go around and sections of the people were on a ‘starvation diet’. But for Zimbabwean ruling circles those were ‘the best of times’.

Years proved that Mugabe was no Nelson Mandela. As in the case of South Africa, the whites are an essential pillar of the Zimbabwean economy. In both countries white farms are important ingredients in economic success and sustenance. However, whereas Mandela integrated the whites into the wider South African polity post-apartheid and ensured that things remained that way, Mugabe undermined Zimbabwe’s economic stability by, among other things, nationalizing white farmland, through a crude display of nationalistic fervour. The result was economic ruin.

However, such setbacks on the economic front did not deter Magabe and the Zimbabwean ruling strata in their efforts at self-aggrandizement. Mugabe is on record as having said that he wished to not only live for a hundred years but aspired to reach this personal milestone while being supreme ruler. To make matters worse, he wanted his wife to take over the reins of power from him. However, this design proved to be his undoing because the country’s military, as known, had other thoughts. His nepotistic ambitions led to the military coup against him; consequently ending his rule.

For us in Sri Lanka, a ‘growth hub’ of the South and a ‘five star democracy’, all this ought to sound familiar. Post 1977, the rulers have not been few in this country who do not wish to be at the helm of power forever. Likewise, we are familiar with the longing of our ruling strata to pass on power to their ‘near and dear ones’. In other words, ruling families in particular wish to rule in perpetuity and enjoy plum office.

Surprisingly, this pattern has manifested itself prominently in those states that are claiming to be socialist as well. There was the case of Cuba, for instance, where power passed from one brother to the other. President Putin in Russia ought to be realizing by now that being at the helm for too long is not going to be too easy.

However, such distortions in governance and economics should not surprise those with a keen eye on how Southern polities have been degenerating over time. The key to such pitfalls are the South’s parasitic ruling classes. In the immediate post-’independence’ decades we were warned about such deleterious trends by political scientists of the calibre of Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire and more recently Jan Nederveen Pieterse and Kees Van Der Pijl (see; ‘Global Rivalries from the Cold War to Iraq’ by the latter, published by Vistaar Publications, New Delhi,

Essentially and basically, those sections among the ‘independent’ peoples who take over from the colonial powers come to internalize the value systems of the out going rulers, resulting in a repetition in the ‘freed’ countries of those exploitive and oppressive trends that defined colonial times. Zimbabwe too has proved the point.

Considering the foregoing it would be naive in the extreme to hope for ‘Benevolent Dictators’ in the South in particular. Power has a dissipating effect on the human. The contemporary Southern political strongman is a veritable replica of the departed colonial masters, since common values make them ‘soul brothers’. Brown/black rulers become faithful servants of the global status quo.

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