Zimbabwe: After 34 Years of Mugabe - From Darling to Despot, and From Hope to Hunger

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is living proof that power corrupts, and that a cult of personality can devastate a country otherwise brimming with potential.

On 17 April, 1980, Robert Mugabe addressed a euphoric crowd in the soon-to-be-independent Zimbabwe. In the aftermath of a long and brutal liberation struggle against white minority rule, Mugabe seemed to publicly embrace the ideals of peace and reconciliation. By becoming Zimbabwe's leader he ostensibly vanquished the ugly specter of colonialism and racism that had defined the country formerly known as Rhodesia, and entered office buoyed by a wave of international fanfare and support.

It was in this context, on the eve of Zimbabwe's independence, that Mugabe declared: "Democracy is never mob rule [... ] Our independence must thus not be construed as an instrument vesting individuals or groups with the right to harass and intimidate others [... ] Our new nation requires [... ] a new spirit that must unite and not divide."

This hopeful rhetoric would almost immediately ring hollow. By July, a state of emergency had been declared and a mere six months after achieving independence, Mugabe ordered the first wave of the Gukurahundi massacre, a violent suppression of the Ndebele in which an estimated 20,000 people were murdered. The Gukurahundi would mark the ominous beginning of an era characterised by widespread violence, suppression of the political opposition and civil society, rampant corruption, and a gradual degradation of Zimbabwe's economy.

Although a cavalier disregard for human rights has been a hallmark of Mugabe's leadership from the outset, this largely went unnoticed or otherwise tacitly encouraged by his Western backers early on. Despite the warning signs of a burgeoning dictator with violent tendencies, then US president Jimmy Carter welcomed Mugabe to the White House in August 1980, giving a round of stirring speeches to university students in Washington, DC. Early in the next decade, following a series of bloody elections and what some have labeled a genocide against the Ndebele, Mugabe was appointed an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II and received scores of honorary degrees from around the world. Many of these honors, including his knighthood, have more recently been revoked.

Under Uncle Bob

Whereas Mugabe and his allies in the military, police, and security forces once largely relied on physical violence to preserve their hold on power - from Gukurahundi to the horrific electoral violence of 2008 - state repression is now largely masked behind the 'rule of law'. While there are occasional outbursts of violence against peaceful protesters and suspicious disappearances of critics, the Mugabe government relies on more nuanced methods to maintain a veil of democratic legitimacy.

Harassment and dubious incrimination of human rights defenders doesn't attract the same headlines as overt violence. And in this sense, Mugabe has learned the all-important lessons for 21st century despots: 1) use courts and state prosecutors instead of baton-wielding security forces to strangle the legitimate work of civil society actors; and 2) stage routine elections, but peacefully tilt the playing field in your favor thereby making the election a mere formality.

These cunning methods have allowed Mugabe to rule the country he once helped to liberate longer than many Zimbabweans have been alive. Mugabe has the ignominious distinction of being the only African head-of-state to preside over an average decline in both economic output and life expectancy since 1980; Zimbabwe's poverty rate has skyrocketed; and the nation has shifted from being a global exporter of food to one in which one in four citizens needs food assistance.

Furthermore, a recent survey by the country's largest trade union found that 75 major companies have shut down since January 2014 alone, putting around 9,000 breadwinners out of work; a once lauded education system is crumbling, with teachers routinely striking or leaving the work force altogether due to inadequate pay; and in March 2013, while 80% of the country was surviving on less than one dollar a day, Mugabe binged $16 million of taxpayer funds to cover the costs of his 90th birthday party, his daughter's wedding, and two bronze statues of himself to be built by North Korea. A recent study by the Center for Global Development estimates that Mugabe's misrule has cost the country upwards of $96 billion.

Zimbabwe's economic decline began in earnest in 2000, the year Mugabe suffered his first and, to date only, defeat in the polls during a constitutional referendum. Shortly after that defeat, groups of liberation war veterans took the long-standing problem of land distribution into their own hands as they seized, often violently, vast tracts of land from the country's white commercial farmers.

This so-called fast-track land reform programme was, at least in theory, well-intentioned as it redistributed land to around a million black Zimbabweans, many of whom have since made successes of their farms. However, many farms that were once booming are now underutilised, and considerable chunks of the seized land ended up in the hands of Mugabe family members and long-time supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party.

This type of mismanagement and corruption, often under the dubious guise of 'national progress', is not uncommon. Nowadays, scandals are so commonplace that barely anyone outside the country bats an eyelid at revelations, for example, that Mugabe has disbursed salaries of over $500,000 a month to senior bureaucrats.

All the while, the United States and other Western governments send millions of dollars in aid, lending a lifeline to a government that blames the West for most of its ills, while benefiting from unchecked graft and corruption. After the 2013 elections, the West collectively questioned the legitimacy of an election stolen without bloodshed - surely a vast improvement for Zimbabwe - but in private breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Mugabe's legacy

While Mugabe and dictators like him around the world have more recently outpaced democratic gains, international actors - including governments and civil society - can take a number of steps to reverse this trend.

Firstly, they should recognise that 'peaceful elections' - in other words, the lack of bloodshed on Election Day itself - are not necessarily fair or credible. Leaders that ascend to power through illegitimate means should be labeled as such and rightfully isolated until necessary reform is implemented.

Secondly, we must work collaboratively, with more progressive regional leaders in Africa, to counteract repressive legislation such as anti-protest and public assembly laws as well as so-called 'NGO laws' that restrict foreign funding for independent groups and unduly increase government oversight. We can do this together by investing more in civil society, thus empowering individuals with the necessary tools to combat modern-day repression at the local level.

From boasting about his "degree in violence" to using more nuanced means with which to maintain power, Robert Mugabe is a veritable trailblazer in the field of modern dictatorship. He has both inflicted human misery at home in Zimbabwe and has inspired it abroad.

In his speech 34 years ago, Robert Mugabe appealed to the best in all of us, planting the seeds of social cohesion and genuine progress, particularly for those who had been unfairly marginalised in the past. Today, that same soil is heavy with the spilt blood of those who dared to oppose his directives and now seems incapable of sustaining an increasingly starved population. Mugabe is living proof that power corrupts, and that a cult of personality can devastate a country otherwise brimming with untold potential. To many people, Mugabe's legacy will be one of violence, intimidation, corruption, and economic ruin, but this certainly does not need to be Zimbabwe's lasting legacy as a nation.

Jeffrey Smith is the Advocacy Officer at RFK Partners for Human Rights. Follow him on twitter at @Smith_RFKennedy.

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