Zimbabwe is the former South Rhodesia, which recently achieved prominence in the media with the fall of its iconic President, Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Mugabe had been in power since 1980, when the former British colony became independent following a long war of liberation and the Lancaster House Agreement.
The Struggle for Independence Against Britain and White Rule
Before that, Southern Rhodesia had been a member of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which also comprised today’s Zambia (former North Rhodesia) and Malawi (former Nyasaland). When Zambia and Malawi achieved independence in 1964, the South Rhodesian white minority rebelled against British rule and proclaimed unilateral independence in 1965. The rebellion triggered a long civil war, known as the Bush War, waged against the white minority government by the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) under Mugabe and the Zimbabwe People’s Union (ZAPU) under Joshua Nkomo. This is where geographic factors came in to shape the future of the rebel British colony.
Nkomo, also known as Big Josh, was a pioneer of Zimbabwe’s liberation. He had his constituency in Matabeleland in the south that was populated by the Ndebele Bantu ethnic group. It borders South Africa’s Gauteng province, which also has an important Ndebele population. South Africa however was under the white rule of Apartheid and was supportive of the South Rhodesian rebel government of Ian Smith. This explains why ZAPU needed to avoid encirclement and had its operational base in Zambia.
ZANU Spearheads the Struggle Against White Minority Rule
Since Nkomo was so far removed from his Matabeleland constituency, he had less of an impact on the independence movement’s military outcome. Mugabe’s ZANU, on the other hand, had its operation base in neighboring Mozambique, like Zimbabwe, has a Shona population. Mozambique had already won independence from Portugal and was under the government of a fellow African revolution group, the FRELIMO (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, or Liberation Front of Mozambique) led by President Samora Machel. ZANU’s military and political actions were decisive in the demise of the white minority regime; when the Lancaster House talks opened, ZANU guerrillas were already in the outskirts of Harare.
To fight the African insurgencies, especially those operating from Mozambique, Smith’s minority government formed a special regiment of Selous Scouts, whose motto was “pamwe chete” in Shona, meaning “all of us together.” This is the same concept—in name and in action—as the notorious Rwandan “Interahamwe.” The Selous Scouts committed atrocities in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique, but they ended up losing the war.
Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1980, this time from Britain, as London had to re-take custody of the rebellious province from the minority regime. Lord Christopher Soames became the last British governor of South Rhodesia for about five months from December 11, 1979 to April 18, 1980. Soames handed power over to President Canaan Banana, who was the first Head of State of Zimbabwe, while Mugabe became its executive Prime Minister. On December 31, 1987, Mugabe took over the presidency and became executive President of the Republic of Zimbabwe until his resignation in November 21, 2017. When his leadership came to an abrupt end on November 21, 2017 he had been the oldest serving head of state in the world, at 93 years and 271 days old.
The Fall of Mugabe and the Current Political Crisis in Zimbabwe
A Series of Blunders From the Start
Now back to the current situation of how a liberator-turned-senile-dictator fell from power.
Mugabe was initially known as a charismatic leader who forced imperial Britain to surrender Albion’s last colony on the African continent. During his long reign, he had to quell the Matabeleland disturbances, using the notorious 5th brigade, which had been trained by North Korea. This unit committed atrocities which some observers regard as genocide.
While fighting the Rhodesian Bush War, Mugabe was more than ready to share the burden of the fight with Ndebele Nkomo. After independence, Mugabe was unwilling to accommodate Nkomo and award him a fair share of the leadership he was entitled to as Mugabe’s more internationally-known elder in the struggle. Their differences led to the violent government crackdown on the province of Matabeleland which was more loyal to Nkomo; it left a bitter ethnic legacy and denying Zimbabwe the opportunity to move forward as a united nation. That was Mugabe’s first political faux pas.
Mugabe cannot escape responsibility of government incompetence when the otherwise prosperous economy of Zimbabwe was allowed to collapse, with the ensuing widespread unemployment, deterioration of infrastructure and social services, the rise of corruption, lawlessness and hopelessness.
His second blunder was the mismanagement of the land reform crisis. Under the white minority regime, Zimbabwe had become a regional breadbasket. The land reform was part and parcel of the independence package, and Britain had committed herself to compensate the white settlers who were to lose their commercial farms as a result of the land reform. But then President Mugabe also knew that his African constituency did not have the capital and the know-how to run commercial farms to ensure continued agricultural prosperity, employment for black manpower, and revenue for government budget and services.
Britain’s failure to come through on her colonial commitments of the Lancaster House Agreement was however no warrant for the government of Zimbabwe to take moves that would surely drive Zimbabwe’s economy down into the ditch. While independence would be an empty shell if not accompanied by the repossession of land by native Africans, Mugabe cannot escape responsibility of government incompetence when the otherwise prosperous economy of Zimbabwe was allowed to collapse, with the ensuing widespread unemployment, deterioration of infrastructure and social services, the rise of corruption, lawlessness and hopelessness.
The Last Straw and the ‘Non’ Coup D’Etat
The straw which broke the camel’s back came in the form of the sacking of the veteran freedom fighter Emmerson Mnangagwa from his position as the country’s vice president, in order to award it to the country’s opportunistic first lady, Grace Mugabe, who had no known credentials, other than manipulating her aging husband. The army, under the leadership of fellow veteran freedom fighters, could not bring itself to accept such an unceremonious sacking of one of theirs, only to be replaced by Mrs. Mugabe.
The army achieved the acrobatics of staging a non-coup d’état, with all the features of a military take-over but without the intention to actually grab power and put in place a military government. While condemnations of the intervention of the army in politics were voiced from some foreign capitals, including by the current chairman of the African Union, a flood of protesters invaded the streets of Harare. They marched with members of the armed forces to demand the departure of the veteran independence leader. When Mr. Mugabe’s letter of resignation reached the parliament floor, it was greeted with cheers and standing ovation by members of the Assembly and Zimbabwe entered a new period in its post-independence history.
Mnangagwa, the fired former vice president, was sworn as the country’s third president on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017 and will run an interim government until the election of a new leadership. Considering that the same ZANU-PF remains in charge, what we are likely to have is almost more of the same. But Zimbabweans on the streets of Harare expressed, “we have hope, in spite of whatever may come next.” Meanwhile, it is also hoped that other African long-serving dictators will draw the appropriate lessons from what has just happened to Mr. Mugabe: What will set the ball rolling to your political demise is not the treason of your generals or your cabinet ministers, but an insignificant and seemingly innocent move such as granting power to one’s wife.