How Western cunning exploited African gullibility to demonise the Zimbabwean president
President Robert Mugabe is leaving power under duress after 37 years as leader of Zimbabwe. His fall has been celebrated as the “end of an error.” He has been vilified as an ageing, corrupt despot that wrecked his country’s economy and wanted to hand power to his wife after ruling for too long. But how long is too long?
In 509 BCE, the Romans revolted and deposed King Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquinius, The Proud) and established a republic under a Senate, which would elect two consuls as chief executives to serve a nonrenewable term of one year. This system survived for 482 years until Octavian (August Caesar) transformed the republic into an empire, circa 27BC. Under this system Rome grew from a small Kingdom in Italy to control an empire covering most of Europe through North Africa to Asia Minor.
Hence the Romans would find the US presidency that can last eight years too long i.e. there is no universal standard on longevity.
The view that Mugabe ruled for too long is based on a standard set by someone. We African elites have embraced it without critical examination. Maybe Zimbabwe’s context requires a president to serve a nonrenewable term of one year or a term of ten years renewable thrice. Could the problem of Africa be that no one cares to think outside the box set for us by others?
Secondly, we had been told that Mugabe had personalised power. Yet recent events show this power was actually derived from his ability to arbitrate different powerful interests over which he superintended. When he was seen to represent the interests of his wife and her allies (who were not original to ZANU-PF) these interests decided to remove him. Therefore all the books, academic papers and media reports on personal rule by Mugabe were misrepresenting Zimbabwe’s politics. Thus the concept of “personalisation of power” (of which I have been a culprit) that we have internalised uncritically obscures rather than illuminates our understanding of the reality of politics in Africa.
Mugabe is accused of wrecking the economy of Zimbabwe by expropriating the property of white farmers. He has always defended himself saying that it is not his land reforms that led to economic collapse but the imposition of sanctions on Zimbabwe by Western powers. For many years, I refused to listen to him. Like most African elites, I embraced accusations against him uncritically. But do such confiscations automatically destroy an economy?
When Yoweri Museveni captured power in Uganda, Western ideologues made this claim. They convinced him to return Asian properties that had been confiscated by Idi Amin in 1972. He did. Uganda’s economy rebounded and the nation entered a long-term trajectory of growth. In most economic literature on post 1986 Uganda, this return of Asian properties is presented as a major reason for our growth. Therefore, it seems obvious that respect for private property does the magic of economic growth, right?
The reality is more complex. As Museveni was returning Asian properties to their former owners, he was also grabbing land from Ugandan ranchers and handing it over to landless cattle keepers in Ankole and parts of Buganda – exactly as Mugabe was later to do with white farmers. Western governments, academia and media said nothing. Why? The victims of Museveni’s land reforms were not white or Ugandan-Asians with Australian, British and Canadian citizenship. They were native Ugandans. Yet in spite of these confiscations, Uganda’s economy grew rapidly.
Also in 1946, South Korea supported by the American Military Government confiscated all the property of the Japanese who had been its colonial masters – land, banks, factories, etc. – which constituted about 75% of that nation’s GDP. Yet in spite of these confiscations, South Korea transformed from a poor agricultural society into a rich industrial nation within a generation.