Let Mugabe keep honorary degrees
This campaign, its timing and the rhetoric behind it are the epitome of Western hypocrisy, an insult to all victims of state-sanctioned violence in Zimbabwe, Gukurahundi victims in particular.
Robert Mugabe’s honorary degrees should stay. They represent a period of madness in history where a genocidal dictator went on the rampage and the international community, the West in particular, either looked the other way or cheered him on. Any university that respects human rights should never ever have awarded Mugabe an honorary degree during the 1980s or any other period. A public apology to Zimbabweans is the only sincere protest against Mugabe’s rule that these universities can offer.
The three universities awarded Mugabe the degrees during the watershed decade of government crackdown on political dissent under the guise of fighting rebels in Matabeleland and the Midlands. State-directed violence punctuated 1984, 1986 and 1990, the years, respectively, Edinburgh University, University of Massachusetts and Michigan State University, honoured Mugabe. Edinburgh University is reportedly reviewing the dictator’s honorary degree. Recall petitions are under way at the two US universities.
The period 1980 to 1983 was the most critical with mass disappearances, beatings, rape and murder of innocent villagers. With the urging of then Minister of State Security, Emerson Mnangagwa, the North Korea-trained 5th Brigade, Central Intelligence Organization and Zanu PF militias “burned down the villages infested with dissidents”. Hundreds were burned alive in their huts.
Thousands were shot in public executions. At Lupane on March 5, 1983, for example, the 5th Brigade rounded up and shot 62 young men and women on the banks of the Cewale River. 55 died and seven survived with gunshot wounds. Often, the 5th Brigade forced the victims to dig their own graves in front of family and fellow villagers.
In places like Tsholotsho state-sponsored terror forces routinely rounded up dozens or even hundreds of civilians and marched them at gun point to a central place. There they forced them to sing songs praising Mugabe and Zanu PF, before executing them.
These atrocities continued in 1984, the year Edinburgh University awarded Mugabe an honorary doctorate of law. The New York Times of June 21 even reported that “Robert Mugabe’s supporters went on a rampage and killed five supporters of Joshua Nkomo in Kwekwe”.
In the same year, it was clear that Mugabe intended to tighten his already fledgling dictatorial rule. With the forced merger with ZAPU in 1987 in mind, the Zanu PF congress created the notorious Politburo and adopted a new party constitution that called for the creation of a Marxist-oriented one party state.
In 1986, the year the University of Massachusetts awarded Mugabe an honorary doctorate of law degree, the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights reported that Mugabe’s forces continued the “systematic campaign of terror and repression against the minority Ndebele-speaking people…”
By the time of reconciliation in 1987, up to a variously-reported 20 000 innocent people had been murdered. Ironically, the following year, Mugabe extended a complete amnesty to all perpetrators of violence and pardoned mass murderers on both sides of the conflict. By pardoning the murderers, Mugabe personally assumed culpability for their heinous crimes.
It’s important to point out that to this day, no official apology has been extended to the victims. Many continue to grapple with the trauma. To achieve real harmony between the minority Ndebele and the rest of the country in the post-Mugabe era, Zimbabweans will have to engage in an emotional, lengthy and potentially-divisive “truth and reconciliation” process.
Michigan State University honored Mugabe in 1990, the same year Zanu PF supporters unleashed Gukurahundi-style violence on supporters of the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) during the general election. Five candidates were murdered.
Those considering rescinding the degrees are simply trying to rewrite history and absolve themselves from culpability. They are engaging in a spectacular act in self-cleansing and self-exoneration. An honour is not the piece of paper it is written on. It is something intangible, a value. In the collective Zimbabwean memory is etched the horror of Gukurahundi and the validation Mugabe received through numerous honors.
Mugabe’s name will indelibly decorate the roster of exemplary global citizens. Since 1885, the University of Massachusetts has awarded nearly 2,000 honorary degrees to world leaders, renowned scholars and writers. Other recipients include former UN Secretary General, Kofi Anani, Toni Morrison and Nelson Mandela, both Nobel Prize laureates. At Michigan State University Mugabe joins former US President Bill Clinton and former Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien.
By inducting Mugabe into this exclusive club, the universities ignored the victims of Mugabe’s violent rule. They abused the sanctity of honorary degrees. An honorary degree is awarded as a decoration for exemplary global citizenship. According to University of Massachusetts policy, honorary degrees are awarded out to people "of great accomplishment and high ethical standards.''
So, what really happened? Why did these and other Western universities fete and honor the dictator in spite of all these glaring atrocities? Mugabe may be a serial honorary degree collector but he applied for none of them. He was nominated and selected. Let’s not forget that the nomination process is stringent. Several persons are nominated. A strict committee review follows prior to approval.
There can only be one reason why the Gukurahundi massacres escaped the radar: euphoria. Even as Mugabe’s killing machine pulverised Matabeleland and the Midlands, the West and much of the world were too ecstatic over the overthrow of the racist white regime of Ian Douglas Smith to notice. Mugabe was the hero of the day, a rare African statesman. These universities just had to be part of his celebrity status.
What is ironic, though, is that in the current campaign, Mugabe’s foes painstakingly tell us that he is a vicious dictator and human rights violator. The word “genocide” has found a new life in the discourse on Zimbabwe. And yet there is an unmistakable half-hearted, skewed attempt to locate Zimbabwe’s genocide.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes genocide as “the deliberate killing of a very large number of people from a particular ethnic group or nation.” This definition would locate the Zimbabwe genocide in the Gukurahundi atrocities. My definition, a more accurate one, would locate it in Mugabe’s 27-year rule.
For the short-sighted Western construction, often birthed on university campuses, the Gukurahundi atrocities do not constitute genocide. The Zimbabwe genocide lies in the recent confiscation of white farms and deaths of about a dozen white farmers and 300 political activists, both MDC and Zanu PF.
Dr. Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and respected scholar on human judgment validates this skewed perception. In his recent address to the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, he rightly mentioned Zimbabwe as one of the more than ten countries where genocide occurred. Unfortunately, he mentions 2000 as the year of genocide in Zimbabwe.
Michael Thelwell, a professor in the University of Massachusetts Afro-American studies department, confirms this short-sightedness. In the April 5 edition of the Boston Globe newspaper, he claims: "Mugabe has become a scourge of his people and a scourge of Africa. He has degenerated as a political leader and as a human being.”
Thelwell further suggests that the University of Massachusetts “…gave it (the degree) to the Robert Mugabe of the past, who was an inspiring and hopeful figure and a humane political leader at the time. The university has nothing to apologise for in giving a degree to the Robert Mugabe of 20 years ago. And they wouldn't imagine giving an honorary degree to the Robert Mugabe of today.''
It’s worth reminding Thelwell and those of his ilk that Robert Mugabe degenerated well before he assumed power in 1980. He usurped the leadership of the independence movement. To eliminate political rivalry in independent Zimbabwe, he allegedly orchestrated the murder of fellow liberation leaders like Josiah Tongogara. After independence, when it became apparent the late Dr. Joshua Nkomo would revolve into a more astute leader than himself, Mugabe constantly harassed, once exiled and eventually killed him, politically. Then there was Gukurahundi…
The current purge against the opposition and other pro-democracy movements is just a replay, albeit on a lighter scale, of Gukurahundi and other past atrocities. The past has become the present. But, for the Western intellectual, the present speaks for the past. The emotive Zimbabwe debate languishes in the narrow-minded, hypocritical worldview informed by post-9/11 US foreign policy. The paroxysmal Western protestations against Mugabe peak only after another outrageous act of violence.
The Western analysis and scholarship of the Zimbabwe problem is hostage to this pressure-of-the-moment Western response. Those campaigning against the dictator’s degrees are hapless hostages of the spirited regime change agenda. They can only do what is fashionable: appease the dictator’s critics by mass-producing hysterical opinion and analysis.
But there is also a clear case of hypocrisy here. Michael Thelwell, quoted above, was one of the professors who encouraged the school to award Mugabe the honorary degree in 1986. The current heightened stance against Mugabe, including the efforts to recall his degrees, coincides with the US government’s recent admittance to financing forces fighting Mugabe. From the 80s to the mid-1990s, the West was not invested in the “opposition forces” fighting Mugabe’s fledgling dictatorship. These forces and victims of Gukurahundi received very little recognition and support, if any, hence the massacres proceeded unabated and now receive scant mention in the genocidal reference.
Western intellectuals are showing dishonesty of the worst kind here. In the lecture theatres, they indoctrinate students of African history and politics with carefully crafted half-truths spiced with catchy words like “tyrant”, or “dictator”. Selected dates sets boundaries of this skewed scholarship.
Shauna Murray, a University of Massachusetts graduate student who helped circulate the petition against Mugabe’s honorary degree on the Boston campus says in the Boston Globe: "Mugabe's actions during the past decade show he's fallen from being a good citizen of the world.” The “past decade”? Either Shauna has never heard about Gukurahundi or, like the academics, chooses to ignore it altogether. By implication, if Mugabe “has fallen from being a good citizen of the world” then the world considered him a good citizen when he murdered thousands in the 80s.
The West could easily be accused of conspiring with Mugabe against Zimbabweans. In 1983, he granted special immunity to would-be killers, as long as their actions were deemed to be safeguarding the security of the country. The immunity was granted following the kidnapping of foreign tourists by the so called dissidents.
The West used Mugabe and vice, versa. Mugabe had his double personality to thank. At his most Gukurahundi-era evil, he was the humane revolutionary who ended the oppressive white regime of Rhodesia. He either successfully masqueraded as the model of African democracy or the excitable West picked him for one. He successfully played the relentless anti-apartheid campaigner. He became the African international statesman the continent rarely produced.
We are not naïve to believe the Western assertion that Robert Mugabe now stinks. This is a new, repackaged accusation for an old crime. We are now witnessing a stampede to expose the real Robert Mugabe. On the surface the West has come to its senses and realized its faux pax. In reality, it’s all politics as usual. All universities have decisive protocol for awarding honorary degrees but none for their revocation. The three universities couldn’t just wake up in the morning and recall their degrees.
New rules for revocation would have to be drafted, debated and passed before they can be implemented. My guess is that Mugabe, now 83, will be lying comfortably in his grave before any of his honorary degrees are officially withdrawn.
The West’s double standard will not help its regime change agenda either. The lavish patronage Mugabe received at his most ruthless is fresh in the collective Zimbabwean memory. We are not blind to the sympathy currently lavished on some leaders of the struggle against the dictator.
As I pointed out above, Robert Mugabe received his earlier honorary degrees amid the euphoria over Zimbabwe’s transition to independence. The same euphoria greeted the democratic forces defeat of Mugabe during the constitutional referendum of 1999.
The same euphoria will greet the moment the tyrant is deposed. Then the cycle of validation of the new leader will start. Prestigious Western universities will shower the individual with honorary degrees. The individual will miraculously acquire the same qualifications Mugabe’s supposedly had during his ascendance to power: “inspiring”, “hopeful”, “humane”, etc.
And, of course, it will be another eternity before the leader who liberated Zimbabwe from Robert Mugabe is criticised.
Obert Madondo is a Zimbabwean national and writes from Toronto, Canada. He can be contacted on e-mail: email@example.com
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