When Robert Gabriel Mugabe went to Ghana in the late 1950s to teach at the Takoradi Teacher Training College, the first independent country south of the Sahara was very much Kwame Nkrumah’s country.
The U.S. and UK-educated Nkrumah had succeeded in negotiating with the British for Ghana’s independence, and the colonialists were all too ready to allow for the indigenes to govern themselves, having felt Nkrumah’s competence in inciting violent protests when he felt it was necessary.
And when he won independence for the then Gold Coast, Nkrumah warned of the coming years of Western imperialism and said that the independence of Africa was meaningless, “unless it was linked with the total liberation of Africa”.
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Robert Mugabe, arguably the founding father of Zimbabwe, aged 95, died on September 6, 2019. In the coming days and weeks, questions will be raised as to whether he was a hero or a villain. But a simple judgement will be flawed if we do not educate or remind ourselves of what times made the man Mugabe.
To understand what made Mugabe, we have to place him in the times when he was an impressionable and curious man learning from the likes of Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Milton Obote, Patrice Lumumba and others. Theirs was Mugabe’s Africa.
An oft-committed mistake is that Mugabe was Zimbabwe’s first president. That attribute belongs to theologian and politician, Canaan Banana, who became the first black president of an independent Zimbabwe in 1980. Mugabe was Zimbabwe’s first prime minister.
But in 1987 when he became president, Mugabe caused a rewriting of the constitution so that the position of prime minister was abolished. As fate would have it, the position was restored in 2009 to accommodate one of Mugabe’s worst political enemies, Morgan Tsvangirai.
While Mugabe was a teacher in Ghana, a man called Joshua Nkomo had started the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress. The SRANC was committed to ending white minority rule in South Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) through armed conflicts as well as diplomacy.
Mugabe would return to his homeland in 1960, with his Ghanaian wife Sally, to stand in solidarity with Nkomo and others.
Mugabe, the teacher, was never again to return to his profession. A different calling had taken place, one you could argue was bigger, more dangerous but also perhaps for Mugabe, promising spiritual fulfilment.
In 1960s Africa, one thing Mugabe and the SRANC did not lack was a blueprint for fighting colonial power. That period is a watershed in African history. Between 1957 and 1966, 34 countries on the continent became independent.
All across Africa, there was perhaps the strongest sense of solidarity among the peoples to actualise Nkrumah’s dream of total liberation of Africa. There was a common enemy: the white European man who had tricked his way into settling on the black man’s land and stealing from the black man.
This feeling resonated with Mugabe, then a man in his 30s. He’d be quoted as saying, “Europeans must realise that unless the legitimate demands of African nationalism are recognised, then racial conflict is inevitable.”
African nationalism was Mugabe’s initiation into politics. If you asked Mugabe or Nkrumah or Leopold Senghor or Frantz Fanon what African nationalism is, bets are that none of them will say it is politically left or right.
Early anticolonial thinkers refused to see their philosophy through the lenses of western sight. After all, African nationalism is a response to European political, socioeconomic, and biological imperialism. It is founded on the axiom that owners of the lands of Africa are the only determiners of how they should live on their land.
But African nationalism was also necessarily racialised. It is not that a belief in or love for the African was tantamount to hatred for the white man. Rather, the black skin was in every way the equal of the white skin.
To put it simply, if white people believed their skin made them superior to other people, black people were organising around the colour of their skin to fight back the myth of white superiority. This is what gave birth to Mugabe the politician.
As would be surmised by a prime minister of Ghana, Dr K. A. Busia, African nationalism was “a demand for racial equality”.
Mugabe was a dutiful student of this school of thought. Race mattered to him so much, perhaps more than any other post-colonial leader in recent African history. And that was what caused so much animosity between himself and the West.
It must be noted that Mugabe was actually received quite well by Westerners, particularly the British, in the beginning. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994 only for the honour to be annulled 14 years later. Mugabe, in public utterances, demeaned the importance of the honour.
Some have said that the reason he was received well by westerners was that the imperialists wanted a friend in the man who was leading a country rich in everything from platinum to diamond. The love affair turned sour when in 2000, Mugabe’s government began to forcibly seize lands from white owners.
Zimbabwe had been a settler colony for the British. A few other eastern and southern countries in Africa had been as well. And even though black majoritarian rule had been secured, a considerable portion of the good of the land was in the hands of a few white people.
In 1994, a fellow ex-guerrilla fighter for African independence, Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa. He too was faced with a conundrum whereby black people had political power but not economic. South Africa’s problems also bored down to lands.
In severe contrast to Mugabe, Mandela sought a more incrementalist approach to land redistribution, even to the annoyance of some close to him.
But it is quite telling that as much as land redistribution was a major priority for the peoples who wanted them to be presidents, Mugabe’s success, of course at the cost of violence, is derided.
However, Mandela’s failure to oversee the significant redistribution of land to the poor black people of his country is thought in influential quarters as a thing worth emulating.
Robert Mugabe had his faults. Legitimate criticisms may be levelled at him in spite of his noble motivations of African nationalism. It can certainly be said that he became paranoid, sometimes making up strawmen so that he could batter dissenting men.
We must, however, refrain from asking if he was a hero or otherwise. It serves little to no historical purpose except feed into the fast-food style education we give ourselves these days. The rest of the world can only seek to inform ourselves of the multicoloured and multilayered personality and politics of Mugabe.
It may be that Mugabe did not grow with the times and that he was stuck in the 60s and 70s. And even if that were true, that may not entirely be his fault. We would have to ask ourselves: have the foes of African nationalism really changed?