Robert Mugabe; an opportunist, ambitious failure who hijacked a people’s revolution

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By Mlondolozi Ndlovu

Born in 1924, Robert Gabriel Mugabe became one of Zimbabwe’s most talked about nationalists.

Much of the publicity surrounding the name Robert Mugabe took place from around 1960, when he was voted as Secretary General of the National Democratic Party [NDP] at its first Congress in October 1960.

The NDP had been formed on January 1, 1960 amazingly in the absence of Mugabe, leading to some of his critics arguing that he was never where things began.

The NDP lasted for a year and was banned in December of 1961, resulting in the same organisation reviving itself as the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union [ZAPU].

Mugabe continued as ZAPU’s Publicity Secretary of which the president was Joshua Nkomo since the time of the NDP.

It happened that some disagreements began to simmer within the NDP and later, ZAPU’s leadership, leading to the Cold Comfort Farm Congress then pencilled for August 10 to 11, 1963 in Salisbury.

Some of the ZAPU leaders, among them, Enos Nkala, Henry Hamadziripi, Edward Madekurozva and others decided to pre-empt the move and met at Enos Nkala’s house at Highfield in Salisbury and announced the formation of the Zimbabwe African National Union [ZANU].

Another critical point of his story was that Mugabe was not there when ZANU was formed just like in the case of the NDP.

In fact, he was the last to leave ZAPU, to Nkomo’s dismay thus consolidating the perception that he was easily influenced by a political peer group becoming a perennial, “Mafikizolo” which means an individual who always came late into everything.

Mugabe’s early statements as the Secretary General of ZANU were very critical of his comrades whom he had left in ZAPU, including Joshua Nkomo himself.

Some argue that Mugabe’s obsession with an early rivalry to ZANU was part of the reasons why he would always end up purging some enemies within the nationalist constituency rather than realising that the unity of an oppressed people was vital for their own survival.

The first Congress of ZANU was held at Gwelo, later renamed Gweru, from May 21 to 24, 1964, by then the party was becoming a visible political entity.

In 1964, both of ZANU and ZAPU leaders were detained by the settler colonial Rhodesia Front government that had been led by Ian Smith. ZANU personalities were taken to Sikombela forest and ZAPU to Gonakudzingwa.

It was at Sikhombela that Mugabe, Enos Nkala, ZANU’s Treasurer General Leopold Takawira, among others plotted against the leadership of Ndabaningi Sithole.

It were for such acts that Mugabe was always caught in situations that required some secretive activity within even his own party prompting others to feel that he might have harboured an ambition for power but was never courageous to challenge any situation openly .

From 1964 to about 1975, ZAPU and ZANU nationalists remained in jail. On his release, Mugabe came out as the most prominent among the ZANU hierarchy on the basis that Leopold Takawira, ZANU’s first Vice President, had died in detention in 1970, Sithole had increasingly been side-lined and Enos Nkala had to be withheld for a bit of time.

Mugabe rejoined ZANU but by that time, just like in ZAPU, the military wing had grown beyond what the nationalists had seen before 1964.

As the Secretary General of ZANU, Mugabe became one of its major representatives at such conferences of note as the Geneva, Malta as well as the Lancaster House of 1979.

Mugabe did not seem to have been well received by some of the top personalities in ZANU’s military wing.

Again another bad chance for Mugabe was when ZANLA combatants finally and openly rejected Sithole at Mgagao in the 1970s in what led to what is known as the Mgagao Declaration which anointed Mugabe as the leader.

It was for such developments that Mugabe came to be understood as one player who would always survive at the demise of another.

Such space seemed to have given Mugabe some inflammatory mustard type of speeches like the address he made to ZANU in late 1979 which was in inciting against an undeclared enemy, possibly ZAPU.

After Lancaster, Mugabe cast away the Patriotic Front Alliance that had been blessed by the OAU and led ZANU to contest the 1980 elections without ZAPU.

Just before the elections, Robert Mugabe wilfully threatened that if ZANU were to lose the poll, they would definitely go back to war.

ZANU won the elections and proceeded to form a government with Mugabe as the Prime Minister.

From 1980 to 1987, Mugabe took time to confront ZAPU and surprisingly appointed some former Rhodesians to stabilise his security as head of state.

Lt. General Peter Walls the previous commander of the Rhodesian Security Forces was put in charge of the army and Ken Flower directed the Central Intelligence Organisation [CIO], leaving some convinced that Mugabe had a hand in the death of Tongogara, ZANU’s Secretary for Defence just before the end of the Lancaster House Talks in December of 1979.

Some critics argued that Mugabe had carried out the move to destroy ZAPU.

Meanwhile, Mugabe kept the State of Emergency in place during which the state could detain its opponents even if they had been acquitted by courts of law.

It were for the years before the Executive Presidency of December 1987 that Mugabe’s government presided over the worst civil strife in history when the security arms of the state participated in the Gukurahundi atrocities that rocked the Midlands as well as the Matebeleland provinces , prompting some to argue that Mugabe was a tribalist hiding behind a nationalist garment.

It was during the same period that Joshua Nkomo, the leader of PF ZAPU, had to go into exile just as to survive Mugabe’s onslaught. Mugabe had also pushed for a one party state forcefully when the idea was increasingly become archaic the world over.

After the Unity Accord of 1987, Mugabe began to experiment with the economy thus instituting the IMF recommended Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP), a journey that saw one of Africa’s stable economies go to ruin.

Around 1987, Mugabe’s government was rocked by one of Zimbabwe’s post-independence scandals, the Willowgate.

Some his cabinet ministers, the likes of Enos Nkala, Maurice Nyagumbo and later, Enos Ckiwowore were implicated and fell out with Mugabe although it was felt that the Presidents favourites, remained unscathed.

Nyagumbo died in a purported suicide incident, and Enos Nkala, in whose house ZANU was formed, resigned totally, fuelling the feeling that Mugabe was a failed revolutionary who dealt with corruption selectively.

Towards the year 2000, Mugabe’s economic experiments had failed and the dire socio-economic conditions led to the emergence of Zimbabwe’s most formidable opposition party since independence in 1980 – the Movement for Democratic Change [MDC].

Following the 2000 general elections in which Zanu PF lost nearly half of its seats to MDC, Mugabe went on to draft into his successive cabinets, pliant individuals with no liberation war credentials such as Professor Jonathan Moyo, Saviour Kasukuwere, Joseph Made, among others.

These, as it later turned out, would become Mugabe’s henchmen and the party had progressively been rocked by factionalism making it clear that he was purging his vocal liberation war peers.

The advent of the MDC saw Mugabe’s highhandedness as had been in the case of the Gukurahundi era.

Mugabe’s state Security machinery was largely implicated in abductions and the disappearance of critics as well as violent attacks on opposition activists resulting in the deterioration of what had become a relatively peaceful Zimbabwe.

Successive elections were uneven and the results were highly contested resulting in the formation of a government of National Unity [GNU] that some Zimbabweans felt had brought a level of relief especially on the economic and security front.

After the GNU, Mugabe’s ZANU PF won another election and saw his last hold on power before he was deposed by his own military in November 2017.

As the generality of Zimbabweans mourn Mugabe, the total summation of his political character has been that, he was an ambitious failure.

May his soul rest in peace.

Mlondolozi Ndlovu is an independent journalist and researcher. He can be contacted on email: