In 1980, Robert Mugabe, champion of Zimbabwe’s independence movement, was elected as Zimbabwe’s first prime minister, promising to usher in a new era of democracy and freedom. After decades of subjugation and oppression under a white-minority government, Zimbabwe’s future seemed bright. Lauded as a revolutionary hero, Mugabe enjoyed his greatest popularity in the immediate aftermath of Zimbabwe’s independence. Mugabe’s glory days, however, are long past. Thirty-seven years later, it’s hard to imagine how Zimbabwe could look worse. Educated professionals are migrating out in droves, famine has ravaged its rural areas, about 73% of its population lives at or below poverty rates, and its economy has hovered at a state of near breakdown for years. Robert Mugabe, who has clung to leadership in Zimbabwe through this period, has driven the nation into this state of turmoil. His authoritarianism reveals a leader ready to cling to power at the expense of his nation, and unwilling to extricate himself from his country’s fraught colonial past.
Rather than promote a new, more democratic system of government, Mugabe has kept with the model established by his imperialist predecessors. Mugabe’s shift to authoritarianism was almost immediate. In 1983, three years after being elected Prime Minister, he created an elite group of soldiers, called the Fifth Brigade. Under Mugabe’s government, the Brigade led attacks against members of the Ndebele people, who were closely associated Mugabe’s largest opposition party, killing 20,000 people over four years. Mugabe has maintained power in Zimbabwe for 37 years, cultivating an environment of fear and intimidation. Despite living in a self-proclaimed democracy, the predominant mindset of Zimbabwe’s population is that of subject hood, deference to an absolute authority, rather than citizenship, assumed entitlement to certain rights. Ironically, Mugabe’s government bears a striking resemblance to the one he fought to overthrow.
Mugabe has added a militaristic flavor reminiscent of his days as a guerilla-fighter to this time-worn authoritarian system. Since his beginning in office, Mugabe has militarized political conflicts, using force to intimidate and eliminate opposition. During the 2002 election cycles, 70,000 cases of torture and abuse were recorded. In 2008, after his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the first round of voting, Mugabe used Zimbabwe’s army and his own forces to intimidate Tsvangirai’s supporters and keep him from campaigning. This should come as no surprise. During the Rhodesian Bush War, Mugabe led a black majority force against the white minority government, using guerilla tactics to wage a brutal resistance. Military force cemented Mugabe’s rise to power. For a revolutionary conflict, this militarism was crucial. For a fledgling democracy, it was fatal.
Mugabe has exploited the racial legacy of colonialism in an often-unsuccessful effort to gain popularity. Following the defeat of a 2000 referendum to expand his powers, Mugabe, faced with a sharp reminder of his unpopularity, launched a campaign against white land-owning farmers. To justify taking around 800 plots of land, Mugabe cited the legacy of racial injustice under the colonial government. Experts believe that this still-potent history made a land redistribution movement in Zimbabwe inevitable. However, Mugabe’s violent, dramatic tactics made the transition devastating. The seizure of white farms threatened the livelihoods of the 400,000 black farm workers employed at those farms. The land seizures had a devastating effect on Zimbabwe’s economy, crippling its fertile agriculture industry. The decision itself also stood in sharp contrast to the promises “to join hands in a new amity”. made by Mugabe during his early days in office. In 1980, Mugabe championed reconciliation, but when faced with a challenge to his authority, he fell back on divisive, anti-colonialist rhetoric.
Despite his once revolutionary zeal, Mugabe is a man still entrenched in an authoritarian past, and willing to hold Zimbabwe back with him.