Mon | Jul 6, 2020

Editorial | Mindful of how Mugabe lost his way

Published:Wednesday | September 11, 2019 | 12:00 AM

It’s telling that there were no public statements by either the Jamaican Government or Opposition last week mourning the death of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s former president. It was a clear example of the adage about not speaking ill of the dead.

For as much as Prime Minister Andrew Holness may have been busy with matters of State and Peter Phillips distracted by the challenge to his leadership of the People’s National Party, neither, obviously, felt comfortable saying anything in praise of Mr Mugabe. And that is the tragedy of Zimbabwe and a leader who once held so much promise. Robert Mugabe betrayed the investment, tangible and emotional, Jamaicans made in his early cause, which, as people of mostly African descent, they claimed, even if only vicariously, interest. There are lessons in Mr Mugabe’s personal, and Zimbabwe’s institutional, failures from which Jamaica should learn.

As was the case with apartheid in South Africa, Jamaica, even as a British colony, opposed de facto white-minority rule in what was then Rhodesia and ardently rejected Ian Smith’s 1965 unilateral declaration of independence from the UK on the old racist platform, three years after our Independence.

Michael Manley’s premiership of the 1970s lifted Jamaica’s solidarity to new levels. We supported the liberation struggle Mr Mugabe waged from bases in Mozambique, and Mr Manley was a critical voice at the 1979 Commonwealth Summit in Lusaka, Zambia, at which Margaret Thatcher felt compelled to remove the British prop from Mr Smith. The Jamaican reggae legend, Bob Marley, performed at Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations in 1980. Later, Mr Mugabe was to receive the Jamaican national honour, the Order of Jamaica.

Initially, Mr Mugabe performed well. He advanced health and education to black Zimbabweans who had previously been denied the services. Zimbabwe emerged as one of Africa’s most literate countries. A decade before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in South Africa, Mr Mugabe preached racial reconciliation.

“If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become my friend,” he told Zimbabwe’s white population. “If yesterday you hated me, today you can’t avoid the love that binds us.”

No transcendental figure

But despite his rhetoric, Robert Mugabe, unlike Mr Mandela, was no transcendental figure of moral incorruptibility, or political rectitude. He evolved into an African politician of the old order, diminished institutions of governance, denuded democracy, and embraced demagoguery and authoritarianism. His ruthless crushing in the 1980s – often compared to genocide and ethnic cleansing – of an uprising of supporters in Matabeleland of supporters of his former coalition partner, Joshua Nkomo, signalled the extent to which Mr Mugabe was willing to go to maintain power.

Matabeleland, in scale, mightn’t have been repeated, but in ensuing years, as his charismatic hold on Zimbabwe’s population waned and the country’s economy collapsed in the face of a loss of domestic and international confidence, Mr Mugabe and his ZANU-PF resorted to rigging elections and using violence against opponents. Two years ago, with Zimbabwe’s institutions rickety or collapsed, and Mr Mugabe, then 93, clinging to power as a battle for succession raged between his wife and former colleagues, he was removed by the army in a coup.

Many of Jamaica’s institutions of governance may be stressed and strained, but happily they aren’t broken. We hold elections and are relatively certain that the results they produce largely represent the will of the people. But that we can’t take for granted.

When nearly 80 per cent of Jamaicans believe that the public bureaucracy is corrupt and more than half have little confidence in the critical institutions of the State, and the army enjoys greater credibility than other institutions, there is cause for concern. The continued erosion of critical institutions could set the basis for the emergence of someone like Robert Mugabe.