Critics on both sides of the left-right paradigm generally agree on the appalling legacy of Robert Mugabe’s rule of Zimbabwe. Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media beams apocalyptic images of hunger, devastation and disease as the Zimbabwean economy continues to collapse. But the origins as well as the internal and external forces which have contributed to this catastrophe are rarely discussed in detail. Instead, Mugabe is represented as the epitome of the post-colonial, corrupt, African leader oppressing his own people in an insane attempt to preserve his brutal autocracy. Currently ranked as number 7 on Parade magazine’s World’s Worst Dictators list, Mugabe is universally accused of using anti-imperialist and anti-racist propaganda to divert attention from his own oppressive policies, blaming the West for African problems. However, few people in Europe understand the underlying features of these problems
When the Marxist ZANU party finally succeeded in ousting British imperialist rule from Zimbabwe in 1980 Mugabe became the symbol of the new progressive African leader and was copiously rewarded with honorary degrees by many Western universities.
One would be inclined to consider such Western largess unusual for a Marxist leader in the middle of the Cold War, but that is because Mugabe was forced to compromise his revolutionary principles in the interests of ‘realpolitik’. Indeed, it is highly questionable if he ever really had them to begin with. Nevertheless, the best one could hope for when dealing with a rapacious British imperial state was a meagre share for Zimbabweans of their own national resources or nothing. When the Lancaster Agreement was signed in 1979, Mugabe agreed to allow a 20 seat representation for the white minority and a twenty year moratorium on constitutional amendments. This was bad news for the landless peasants, hungry for land redistribution, who made up the majority of the population. Yet, in spite of these drawbacks, Mugabe’s progressive policies in the areas of health and education produced remarkable results. From 1980 to 1990 infant mortality rates had been significantly reduced, malnutrition rates had halved and Zimbabwe had one of the highest literacy rates in the developing world.
One of the problems in understanding the internal politics of Zimbabwe revolves around the conflicting interests of the rural landless peasants (what we in Ireland used to call ‘spalpíní) and the urban working and middle classes. Torn between the competing interests of these classes; his own desire to stay in power, and the voracious drive of multi-national companies to exploit the resources of his country for their own gain, Mugabe tended to rotate in a vortex of competing forces. If he ignored the interests of the imperials powers, they would put measures in place to ruin his economy or assassinate him as in the case of the noble Patrice Lumumba of Congo or his old friend, the great Nkruma of Ghana. Those leaders had made the mistake of putting their own country’s interests first and were consequently ousted by the CIA. On the other hand, he also had to appease the desires of Zimbabweans.
When the World Bank forced ‘structural reforms’ on the Zimbabwean economy in 1991,unemployment soared, Mugabe lost the traditional support he had enjoyed among the state sector workers and the middle classes. Another complicating factor here was the class tension between the two principal ethnic groups in the country, namely the Shoma majority and the Ndebele minority. The British always tended to favour the minority in order to divide and rule. As a result, the Ndebele tended to produce leaders of the urban trade unions rather than the peasant liberation movement. Mugabe, himself of Shona extraction, had supported the traditional class structure until the rural unrest in the late nineties, evicting peasant squaters from settler-owned land.
According to the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani, by 1991 the opposition to Mugabe was now quite diverse ‘ containing, on the one hand, public sector workers trying to roll back the tide of Structural Adjustment; on the other, uncompromising free-marketeers such as Eddie Cross, the MDC secretary of economic affairs and a senior figure in the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, who was intent on privatising almost everything, including education.’ Meanwhile, Mugabe was facing fierce pressure from his landless veterans who wanted radical land distribution. By this stage, however, external funding for the urban trade union opposition from the US Ford Foundation, Heritage Foundation and others steered that movement in the direction of neo-liberalism; these organisations lobbied extensively in favour of a no vote on land redistribution.
Having lost the 2000 referendum on land redistribution the peasants rebelled and invaded the white-run farms. With the land revolution came imperialist sanctions and a freeze on credit resulting in economic collapse. But there were other reasons motivating the West’s desire to oust Mugabe. He had defended the Democratic Republic of Congo against the Anglo-American funded proxy armies of Uganda and Rwanda in African Great War. The imperial powers had used the Ugandan and Rwandan armies to plunder Congolese minerals. This is one of the many Anglo-American ‘little secrets’ of recent African history. Another reason they wanted Mugabe out is because he refused IMF ‘conditionalities’. The Heritage Foundation, one of the chief funders of the opposition movement to Mugabe cite his insistence on subsidies for agriculture and state-owned industries, customs and tariffs on imports and land redistribution as the chief cause of concern. There is therefore an inconvenient truth in Mugabe’s anti-imperialist rhetoric. That is why Mugabe is ‘Hitler’ and the dozens of other dictators the imperial powers support are not.