Robert Mugabe: the man and his failures

Wednesday September 11 2019

In this file photo taken on May 18, 1995 US

In this file photo taken on May 18, 1995 US President Bill Clinton points to items of interest on the White House grounds to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe during the latter’s visit. Mugabe last week died aged 95. PHOTO I AFP 

By David B. Moore

Zimbabwe’s former president has died, aged 95.

His failures are legion. They might start with the 1980s Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland and the Midlands, with perhaps 20 000 people killed. Next, too much welfare spending in the 1980s.

Then crudely implemented structural adjustment programmes in the 1990s, laying the ground for angry war veterans and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a strong labour union and civil society based opposition party.

In 1997 Mugabe handed out unbudgeted pensions to the war-vets and promised to really start the “fast track land reform” that got going in 2000, when the MDC threatened to defeat Zanu (PF) at the polls. That abrogation of property rights started the slide in the Zimbabwean dollar’s value.

From 1998 to 2003 Zimbabwe’s participation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s second war cost US$1 million a day, creating a military cabal used to getting money fast. Speedy money printing presses led to unfathomable hyperinflation and the end of Zimbabwe’s sovereign currency, still the albatross around the country’s neck.

In 2008, the MDC’s electoral victory was reversed with a presidential run-off when at least 170 opposition supporters were murdered. Hundreds more were beaten and chased from their homes. Even Mugabe’s regional support base could not stand for that, so he was forced to accept a transitional inclusive government with the MDC.


Over the next decade, Mugabe was unable to stop his party’s increasing faction fighting. His years of playing one group off against the other to favour himself finally wore too thin. When in early November 2017, at his wife Grace’s instigation, he fired his long-time lapdog Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the generals with whom he’d colluded for decades turned on him. A coup petit ensued and returned Mnangagwa from exile, soon to be elevated to the presidency and heavily indebted to his comrades.

Where did Mugabe gain his proclivity for factionalism? And how did he learn to speak the language all wanted to hear – only to make them realise they had been deluded in the end?

The beginning

Mugabe and many other Zimbabwean nationalists were jailed in 1964. Ian Smith was preparing for the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, and the first nationalist party had split into Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union and Ndabaningi Sithole’s Zanu. Mugabe had been Nkomo’s Publicity Secretary.

As far back as 1962, Mugabe was registering on the global scales: Salisbury’s resident British diplomat thought Mugabe was “a sinister figure” heading up a youthful “Zimbabwean Liberation Army … the more extreme wing of Zapu”.

But almost as soon as Mugabe was imprisoned, a man in her majesty’s employ travelled down from his advisory post in newly free Zambia to visit the prisoner. Dennis Grennan returned to Lusaka having promised to look after Mugabe’s wife Sarah, known as “Sally”. Grennan and people like Julius Nyerere’s British friend and assistant Joan Wicken played an important role in Mugabe’s rise.

The Zimbabwean nationalists emerged from Salisbury’s prisons late in 1974, as Portugal’s coup led to Angola and Mozambique emerging from colonialism into the Soviet orbit. The fifties generation of Zimbabwean nationalists were to participate in the Zambian and South African inspired détente exercise. This inspired much competition for Zanu’s leadership: Mugabe arrived in Lusaka after ousting Ndabaningi Sithole, Zanu’s first leader.

Samora Machel, freshly in Mozambique’s top office, wondered if Mugabe’s quick rise was due to a “coup in prison”. Herbert Chitepo’s March 1975 assassination (which got many of Zanu’s leaders arrested and its army kicked out of Zambia) was only one marker of the many fissures in the fractious party that by 1980 would rule Zimbabwe.

In late 1975 the vashandi group emerged within the Zimbabwean People’s Army. Based in Mozambique’s guerrilla camps, they tried to forge unity between Zimbabwe’s two main nationalist armies and push a left-wing agenda. They were profoundly unsure of Mugabe’s suitability for leadership.

When Mugabe found his way to Mozambique also in late 1975, Machel put him under house arrest in Quelimane, far from the guerrilla camps. In January Grennan helped him to London to visit a hospitalised Sally. He made contacts around Europe and with a few London-based Maoists.

Soon after Mugabe’s return the young American congressman Stephen Solarz and the Deputy Head of the American embassy in Maputo, Johnnie Carson, wended their way to Quelimane. Mugabe wowed them.

Solarz and Carson reported back that Mugabe was “an impressive, articulate and extremely confident individual” with a “philosophical approach to problems and … well reasoned arguments”. He claimed to control the “people’s army”. Yet by January 1977, he persuaded Samora Machel to imprison the young advocates of unity with Zapu. His many reasons included their initial refusal to support him at a late 1976 conference in Geneva organised by the British, helped immeasurably by Henry Kissinger, the American Secretary of State.

At a hastily called congress in March 1977 to consecrate his ascension, Mugabe uttered his leitmotif: those appearing to attempt a change to the party’s leadership by “maliciously planting contradictions within our ranks” would be struck by the “the Zanu axe”.

This was Mugabe’s strategy, embedded at an early stage: tell foreign emissaries what they wanted to hear, use young radicals (or older allies) until their usefulness subsided, and then get rid of them. (

Moore is visiting Fellow, Clare Hall, University of Cambridge and Professor of Development Studies, University of Johannesburg, University of Johannesburg