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Robert Mugabe’s death and the legacy of dominant parties

By Chipo Dendere

Robert Mugabe has died. At the time of his death on September 6, 2019, Robert Mugabe was 95 years old.

Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for nearly four decades since independence until his ouster in the 2017 coup led by his former deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mugabe’s legacy, like that of many founding fathers and leaders of liberation struggles in Africa, is complicated. He was both hero and villain.

Mugabe's post-Independence consolidation of power

Mugabe leveraged his status as a hero of Zimbabwe's war of independence to create a brutal form of socialist communism. At independence there were four black-led political parties. Mugabe’s ZANU emerged as the winner, with Joshua Nkomo coming second, but with a much smaller vote drawn mostly from the southern region.

Although Mugabe had come in promising democracy, he was not happy that Joshua Nkomo was gaining in popularity – like other post-independence leaders before him such as Nkrumah he wanted to consolidate power around himself and his party.

In an effort to weaken Nkomo Mugabe and his then state secretary Emmerson Mnangagwa orchestrated the Ghukurahundi massacres which resulted in the deaths of at least 20,000

people in the South.

It was not uncommon for competing factions to try and assert their power through violence in the period immediately following the exit of colonial powers. In fact violence continues to be a commonly used campaign strategy by ruling parties in many parts of the continent.

The Ghukurahundi genocide forced Joshua Nkomo and his party ZAPU to fold and join forces with ZANU leading to the formation of ZANU PF. Under this coalition, ZANU PF became a super-size party almost impossible to defeat.

In some ways, one could say that this coalition did well to unite Zimbabweans along ideological lines rather than tribal lines as often seen in many parts of the world. Over the last decades the choice to vote against Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF has had very little to do with his being Shona or black and much more to do with the economy. In a strange play of events, his hunger for power might have had this one positive outcome.

Brutality and the decay of Zimbabwean politics

Over time, Mugabe evolved into a purely brutal dictator. His and ZANU PF’s brand of socialist communism is selfish. The ruling party remains the most powerful organ of the state. Party elites continue to influence important judicial and economic decisions. In 1999, the late Morgan Tsvangirai led the formation of the strongest opposition in recent years.

Under Mugabe, ZANU PF deployed deadly force to silence the opposition. Many opposition fighters were killed or maimed. Since 1999 nearly four million Zimbabweans have been forced to leave home as the economic and political situation continued to deteriorate. Over the last decade, I have interviewed hundreds of Zimbabweans who expressed hope that Mugabe’s death would resolve Zimbabwe’s crisis. It is unlikely that his death will achieve this because the system that ZANU PF created cannot be changed because of the demise of one individual.

Dominant ruling parties tend to develop a life of their own. Each generation of elites within the party will attempt to manipulate the systems in ways that will keep them in power. As the generation of liberation leaders dies off their offspring, have already begun to jump in claiming that the war hero statutes of their fathers be transferred to them. However, there is some hope that the parties might be forced to reform from within. In Tanzania, South Africa and Namibia were independence parties also remain in power there has been some democratic transfer of power within the parties.

What are the implications of his death?

Since the coup, Mnangagwa has tried to balance claiming Mugabe’s legacy and placing the blame on the man he has called his father. In Mugabe’s absence, ZANU PF must decide how they will shape the narrative of his life, but it will not be easy. To completely disown Mugabe would lose them support in the rural areas where Mugabe remained popular even after the coup, and it is unlikely to gain them any new support in urban areas where the MDC is still running strong.

Mugabe’s story is incomplete if we do not acknowledge that he was also a liberation war hero. He spent nearly a decade behind bars under the Rhodesian government. He was also a victim of a brutal system that created political monsters who will haunt Zimbabwe and many post-colonial countries for generations to come.

Under his new leadership, Zimbabwe saw strong gains in the education and agricultural sectors. Mugabe was also one of the first African leaders to acknowledge that HIV was a severe problem not only Zimbabwe but in the region as a whole. It is likely because of his intervention and openness to dealing with disease that many feared that more people have gained access to the much-needed ARVs.

Land is a complicated issue in Africa. Every ruling party across the continent must decide how best to deal with the question of land ownership and to do so without destroying the agricultural sectors or denying the indigenous people their rights. On land – Mugabe was not wrong, but his methodology and his motives were wrong. However, the next generation of leaders in Zimbabwe and elsewhere have his blueprint on which to develop better ideas to bring the African continent forward.

As a Zimbabwean, I feel obligated to recognize both his worst tendencies and the good that he did for Zimbabwe. Rest in Peace Robert Mugabe.

Chipo Dendere is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the Africana Studies Department at Wellesley College. Follow her on Twitter at @drDendere.

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