I can’t believe he is gone – albeit decades overdue – and I find it difficult to imagine Zimbabwe without him.
If ever there is a case study for the perils of clinging too long to power in Africa, Robert Gabriel Mugabe is it; a cautionary tale for every leader trying to die in office.
If he had stepped down after his second, or even third term – about 1995, I reckon – he would have been revered in the way a true leader should. There would have been museums and archives set up his honor, an annual Mugabe lecture by the finest brains on the planet. There would have been scholarships in his name and he would have been on advisory panels along with Jimmy Carter and the rest of the world’s sage elders. Like the late president of Botswana, Ketumile Masire, who got it right after two terms, Mugabe could have sat on his farm waiting for the wise and the good to beat a path to his door seeking counsel.
Instead Mugabe spent the most of the last two years being vilified, spat at, mocked and howled down by the mob. I saw him at the World Economic Forum in May, in Durban, and it made me sick to my guts; the poor man could hardly walk let alone keep his eyes open. I blame those around him too who kept him on the throne in the interests of their paycheques.
It was a sadder sight when I compared it to the first time I interviewed Mugabe, all clipped, groomed and sharp suited at State House in Harare, way back in April 1994 with the autumn sun glinting through the window and lawnmowers humming across the carpet of green grass outside. Those were halcyon days for Mugabe, respect among his educated people – with one of the highest literacy rates in Africa – was in abundance. Any criticism of the big man was met with reproving stares.
“That is our president,” people used to say.
On this warm autumn day Mugabe was at his schoolmasterly sharpest, always ready to take advantage of any gap in knowledge.
“Who told you that?” he used to say if you really caught him out, trying to dismiss you as if you were a sixth former. Remember, if he hadn’t bid for power, liberating his country, he could have ended his working days as a colonial headmaster.
As the years wore on I interviewed him many times and he rarely disappointed even if some of his quotes, even in the sharp days, were bizarre.
I remember a day at the Harare Book Fair, in 1995, when Mugabe went off on a rant against gays and lesbians displaying their books on the stalls. He called them the association of sodomists and sexual perverts. When he came out of the fair I asked him on camera what he had against gay people.
“I do not believe men should have children through wombs,” says Mugabe. It underlined the old man’s vehemence when he had a bee in his bonnet.
Once we dashed to an impromptu roadside speech by Mugabe to a large crowd of Zanu-PF Women’s League in Samora Machel, the main road through Harare. We arrived in a rush and my cameraman hastily set up his tripod and fiddled with the camera. All the while Mugabe was watching us out of the corner of his eye as he ranted on against gays in ChiShona, his mother tongue. As soon as the cameraman switched on and looked down the lens, Mugabe switched to English.
“Let them be gay in Europe, let them be gay in America, they will be sad people here,” says Mugabe with a dismissive wave of his arms. He knew that soundbite would fly around the world on the new wires; and it did.
This is one reason why Mugabe survived so long, he was a wily old fox (even the cleverest foxes couldn’t have dreamed up some of the big man’s dodges) who knew how to manipulate divide and rule. Woe betide anyone who upset him. He sent a couple of my colleagues to the torture chamber and one of them died very young as a result. More than a few of his opponents disappeared and tens of thousands were killed in Matabeleland in the Gukurahundi of the early 80s.
All of this he brushed off with his trademark arrogance. One summer night, I pushed a microphone under his nose as he walked away from a state function and asked him why he was sheltering Haile Mariam Mengistu – the former president who is wanted for the deaths of many thousands of his fellow Ethiopians – who lives in luxury in Harare.
“Why can’t we give shelter to a legitimate refugee?” says Mugabe on the night. Well, Bob, there are refugees and then there are fugitives from justice.
As Mugabe walked away to his Mercedes he grumbled to one of his flunkies that it was the reason he didn’t like talking to whites (that must have been me) because they asked stupid questions. Arrogance told him that the latter was true even though the previous question was, pardon me, as true as Bob. That sense of self-importance that dates back to the days when his indulgent mother let him read books instead of herd cattle with his brothers back in his rural home in Zvimba.
Now it has all come home to roost. Everyone has turned on Mugabe: his comrades, his people and even those who worshipped him in better days. What a sad end to what could have been one of the most shining political careers in Africa. He won’t be remembered as a fox; more as a skunk.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe spent 10 years in prison, years in exile, years suffering headaches of building a new post-colonial society amid cold war politics and threats from apartheid South Africa across the border. I have one last question for him before he swans off into an uncertain retirement: Did you come so far for so little?