Robert Mugabe Died Too Late

His rule began brutally and ended in pathetic squalor.

Robert Mugabe
Mike Hutchings / Reuters

It is usually in bad taste to say of the recently deceased that his death came far too late. But even those most sentimental about Robert Mugabe, the first leader of Zimbabwe, will admit that if he had been hit by a bus on the streets of Harare 25 years ago, or crushed by a landslide of Chanel bags after one of his wife Grace’s shopping sprees in London or Paris, the world would be a better place. Instead, Mugabe died yesterday in Singapore at the age of 95, far from the country he first liberated from white-minority rule, then laid to waste over a 37-year rule that began brutally and ended in pathetic squalor.

I understand why some might remember Mugabe mistily. He was a hero to the Non-Aligned and to liberation movements everywhere. He behaved with remarkable consistency through the years, and like Nelson Mandela—the liberation figure to whom he is so often unfavorably compared—he endured political imprisonment and emerged somehow stronger rather than weaker for it. To these heroic qualities, Mugabe added a few with special appeal to intellectuals. A teacher by training, he spent his imprisonment in near-constant study, earning degrees in law and administration from the University of London by correspondence. It is said that even while president of Zimbabwe, he sometimes flew to London secretly to browse new titles at Dillons, a huge bookstore in Bloomsbury.

In spite of these highbrow tastes (and an unimposing physical presence), Mugabe became the political figure of choice for the Zimbabwean guerrillas who, during the years in the 1970s after his imprisonment, used Mozambican territory to conduct raids against the Rhodesian military. The Rhodesians hit back against civilian targets, and the black population of the borderlands suffered terribly. Aided by the Chinese, Mugabe prolonged and intensified that war, knowing that as it got worse, international support for regime change would improve. In time, no other moral conclusion was possible: The white-minority government needed to negotiate its own surrender.

The standard way of absolving Mugabe for his wartime tactics is to note the justice of his cause, and the unlikelihood that it would have prevailed without violence. History has long since granted that absolution, and indeed honored Mugabe for his courage. The sins he never even attempted to erase were against his comrades in liberation, whom he treated with brutality and suspicion.

He locked up, tortured, and assassinated members of his movement whom he suspected of loyalty to other guerrilla factions. Once in power, the maniacal power-lust of Mugabe the revolutionary became a state religion, a cult of personality that ensured Zimbabwe under Mugabe would never develop the institutions and goodwill that would allow it to flourish as an independent nation. His ultimate crimes were against his country, and his fellow citizens, whom he abused, starved, and robbed. From 1983 to 1987, Mugabe’s army—trained by North Korea—killed tens of thousands of civilians in the Matabele region of Zimbabwe, on the grounds that a rival revolutionary faction (Soviet- rather than Chinese-backed) still enjoyed support there, and threatened Mugabe’s rule.

Mugabe left his inaugural promise—that “yesterday I fought you as an enemy, [but] today you have become a friend and ally”—unfulfilled. Indeed, he made a mockery of that promise in his actions against anyone even remotely perceived as disloyal. After the genocide in Matabeleland, he turned against white Zimbabweans, sanctioning a grisly demagogue, Chenjerai Hunzvi, to whip up vigilante fervor against white farmers. (Hunzvi called himself “Hitler” and “Zimbabwe’s biggest terrorist.”) The Zimbabwean agricultural industry, the country’s largest earner of foreign currency, collapsed, and by the late 1990s Mugabe began resorting to mass-printing of currency to make budget.

I first visited Zimbabwe around that time, with about 300 U.S. dollars stuffed in my socks. That fragrant currency, so desperately coveted by Zimbabweans aware that their government was laser-printing their own money into worthlessness, lasted me nearly a month. For $2, I could get a clean bed and a full English breakfast; for $5, I could eat in the best restaurants in Mutare. Many Zimbabweans, by contrast, had nothing to eat at all. Stores sold their stock for outrageously low prices, with no hope of profit, just of slower immiseration. Dillons of Bloomsbury might have had the newest titles, but I once bought a hardback novel in Harare for three-quarters of one cent.

Hyperinflation is the perfect strategy for the corrupt, because whoever is in charge can designate cronies to receive the privilege of changing money at the government rate and ration out hard currency to everyone else in meager quantities. Mugabe’s allies became rich, while ordinary people were reduced to starvation and supplication. Those who challenged this arrangement seldom escaped punishment.

Once, I was riding a train from Harare to Bulawayo, and I shared a first-class car with a Dutch tourist and a government official from the capital. The government official was well fed and talkative. The Dutchman, who liked horses, said that he had tried to visit the polo grounds, which were marked on his tourist map of Harare. Suddenly, while he peered over the fence in search of ponies, a Toyota screeched up next to him. Men grabbed him by his wrists and crammed him into the back seat, before leading him to the basement of a nearby building. The polo grounds were Mugabe’s private turf, he was told, and his security worried that he was a mercenary scouting the area. (Mugabe survived many assassination attempts.) The government official gave a low whistle when he heard the description of the building, and told us that few had ever emerged from that basement without injury.

Mugabe’s reputation remained sterling in many circles through the mid-1990s, when he still had the shine of liberation and had not yet unleashed his vigilantes. (The international community was content to ignore the mass violence against blacks.) Universities granted him honorary degrees. If he had stepped down, he could have retired to a life of bibliophilism and listening to his favorite singers, Bing Crosby and Pat Boone. Or he could have been hit by a bus. Instead, he showed in the last two decades of his reign the same qualities that had made him effective as a revolutionary: conspiratorial fanaticism, unwillingness to change, sociopathic treatment of anyone questioning his rule.

By the time of Mugabe’s removal by coup d’état in 2017, he was widely ridiculed for dozing in public, and had become a mere mascot for the corrupt elites he had placed in power—chief among them his second wife, Grace. Elements of those elites, led by the military, removed him gently, not least to ensure that the even more sociopathic Grace would not succeed him. Mandela was mourned by the world. Mugabe, whose body is still in transit from Singapore, will have a far smaller funeral crowd, and more than a few of those will attend just to make sure that he’s finally, at long last, dead.