When I last saw Robert Mugabe, in 1980, he was the most popular man in Zimbabwe. An inspiring hero in Africa and around the world, Mugabe had just led his nation to independence from Britain after his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) political party won a smashing victory in the country’s first free elections. Now he is dead at age 95—after Zimbabweans had largely repudiated him for years, and the rest of the world had long regarded him as a corrupt tyrant.
What went wrong? Mainstream media reports will concentrate on Mugabe’s personal failings: his intellectual arrogance, his authoritarianism, and—after he fell under the influence of his second, grasping wife, Grace—his greed. All are true, but together are still not enough to explain his and Zimbabwe’s tragedy.
Even a leader free of Mugabe’s negative qualities would have struggled after independence, partly because of two legacies of British colonialism. The British left behind a time bomb: a grotesquely unequal distribution of land in the countryside. And they taught Zimbabweans that you can ignore peaceful efforts to change, but that violence works. It was a lesson that Mugabe would put to tragic use.
Before independence, some 6,000 white British settlers and their descendants had stolen the more fertile half of the Zimbabwean countryside, while in the more arid half, 4 million black Zimbabweans were squeezed into small plots. During the 1980 election campaign, Mugabe and others raised the looming land crisis as a burning issue, but British diplomats brushed off their concerns, vaguely promising future compensation to buy out the white farmers. Britain had already paid off most of its settlers in Kenya during the 1960s, helping to create a middle class of black farmers who became a source of stability, and Zimbabweans hoped Kenya would set the precedent.
But no. The land crisis in rural Zimbabwe festered for two decades, as successive British prime ministers—even Tony Blair’s supposedly progressive Labour government—continued to stall. Finally, in 2000, desperate black Zimbabweans started seizing white-owned farms. Mugabe, in his 20th year as the country’s leader, did not launch this movement, but he opportunistically saw that he could improve his much-diminished popularity by supporting it. Chaos and violence swept across rural Zimbabwe, but Britain escaped the blame. Today, obituaries for Mugabe in The New York Times and The Washington Post distort the crisis, ignoring its imperial roots.
Britain’s other awful legacy in Zimbabwe was a lesson in the efficacy of violence. During the 1950s, Mugabe and the other leaders of Zimbabwe’s independence movement were not violent people. They formed peaceful political movements, and they campaigned for independence and the end of white minority rule using conciliatory language and tactics of Western democracy, which they had learned in their colonial schools.
They got nowhere. The white minority in Rhodesia, as the country was still called, seized power from Britain in 1965 and imposed an even harsher system of white supremacy, just like apartheid South Africa. Britain had put down rebellions in other colonies with darker-skinned subjects, but it did not send paratroopers to Rhodesia. For the next 10 years, Mugabe, a high school teacher, was confined to a prison camp alongside his pro-independence colleagues. His little son died while he was locked up, but he was not allowed out to attend the funeral.
Only after Britain failed to remove that white-minority breakaway regime did black Zimbabweans launch the bitter seven-year war that eventually forced independence. I witnessed some of that conflict, and the viciousness was breathtaking. I remember black guerrillas telling me that the white soldiers did not take prisoners but routinely hanged anyone they captured. I heard those same white “troopies” casually refer to blacks as “floppies”—because they supposedly “flopped” when you shot them.
After independence in 1980, the apartheid regime launched a violent undercover campaign against Mugabe’s new government, including sabotage and assassinations. Certain political rivals within Zimbabwe may or may not have been linked to that campaign. What is certain is that Mugabe responded with terrible counterforce, and his soldiers killed thousands of people, nearly all of them innocent civilians, mostly in the southwest.
I returned to Zimbabwe in 2014 after a long absence, and I was not surprised to find that Mugabe was now widely hated, and that a country that had once been so full of hope had soured into an atmosphere of corruption, opportunism, and violence. His ZANU-PF party, once a principled and idealistic force, had long since been transformed into thuggish paramilitaries, and Mugabe had actually lost every election from 2002 onward, holding on to power only by force.
But there is cause for optimism. For decades now, a brave opposition movement, one that certainly enjoys majority support, has fought for genuine democracy. One of its leaders, the union activist Morgan Tsvangirai, survived three assassination attempts before dying of cancer in 2018, but he never turned to violence. Emmerson Mnangagwa, who seized power from Mugabe in a palace coup in 2017, faces continued stiff resistance from Tsvangirai’s successors.
Robert Mugabe himself was never brought to justice. But he did have a final tragedy: that he lived long enough to see Zimbabwe disown him.