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‘The Robert Mugabe I knew’ – Baffour Ankomah’s Farewell tribute

‘The Robert Mugabe I knew’ – Baffour Ankomah’s Farewell tribute
  • PublishedSeptember 28, 2019

Robert Mugabe was laid to rest in a low-key  private ceremony at his home village of Kutama today. Very few journalists knew Mugabe as our former editor of over 20 years, Baffour Ankomah did. The veteran Ghanaian journalist, now our Editor-at-large, interviewed the late Zimbabwean leader on a number of occasions. Here is his tribute to one of the last great, if flawed, political heroes of our time.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the man whom the West tried in vain for 17 years to bring down is gone and was laid to rest today. Mugabe (born 21 February 1924) wanted to live for 100 years (“just 100 years”, he once told a New African correspondent Mabasa Sasa in an interview), but eventually the Good Lord gave him 95 years, much longer though than most of his comrades who stood with him in the liberation struggle.


In the morning of 6 September, in faraway Singapore which had gradually become his second home because that is where he regularly sought expert medical attention unavailable in Zimbabwe, the inimitable Robert Mugabe breathed his last and gave those who had always wanted to dance on his grave a field day.


In life or death, Mugabe sharply divided opinion. No wonder, the reporting of his demise has been so dire in the West where for a good 17 years between 2000 and 2017 the nations of European stock, led by Britain and the US, banded together and tried in vain to bring him down.


That, on the one hand, showed Mugabe’s solidity, while on the other hand (and this is extraordinarily ironic), it took just one woman, his youthful wife Grace, to engineer his eventual downfall, thus exposing his fragility as a man and politician. How he survived a sustained onslaught from the combined and awesome might of the Western world and yet fell so helplessly at the hands of his own wife, sorry because of the machinations engineered by his own wife, is a subject yet to be explored.


Millions of people in Africa and beyond considered him a hero of the first order. Millions too, such as his political opponents at home and detractors abroad, saw him as a despot who used brutality to keep his opponents at bay.


But Mugabe only became a “despot” in 2000 after the British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Secretary of State for international Development, Claire Short, had left him with no options but to seize white-owned land in Zimbabwe and redistribute it to black Zimbabweans. Until then Mugabe was a good man in Africa loved by not only his own people but also by the British and the Western world in general.


A knighthood granted him in 1994 by Queen Elizabeth II but withdrawn in June 2008, and 19 honorary degrees (7 of them given by Western universities, 4 by other African universities, and 8 by Zimbabwean universities) are testament to his larger-than-life character.


Mugabe himself acquired 7 academic degrees, but academic degrees, if we should be honest, pale in comparison with honorary degrees because anybody determined enough can obtain an academic degree. But not everybody can have an honorary degree, because it might take decades or all of a lifetime to earn one if you are lucky. And these decades or lifetime involve much sweat, sacrifices, outstanding feats, altruism, agony even, to attract the attention of a university to give you one.


Which made Mugabe such an outstanding human being to have earned 19 honorary degrees! It was no mean feat and this should put in proper context the sort of person he really was versus the current manufactured portrait of a caricature that the West and its media want the world to believe Mugabe was.


A man of letters, Mugabe’s 7 academic degrees included: A Bachelor of Arts in History and English from the University of Fort Hare in South Africa; a Bachelor of Administration from the University of South Africa; a Bachelor of Education again from the University of South Africa; a Bachelor of Science in Economics from the University of London; a Bachelor of Laws again from the University of London; a Master of Laws from the same University of London; and a Master of Science in Economics again from the University of London.


Then came his impressive honorary degrees: ((1) Honorary LLD from Morehouse College, Atlanta, USA. (2) Honorary LLD from Ahmadou Bello University, Nigeria. (3) Honorary LLD from St. Augustine’s University, Tanzania. (4) Honorary LLD from Lomonosov, Moscow State University, Russia. (5) Honorary D.Civil Laws from the University of Mauritius. (6) Honorary DPSc from the University of Belgrade, Serbia. (7) Honorary D.Com. from Fort Hare University, South Africa. (8) Honorary LLD from the University of Edinburgh, given in 1994, revoked in June 2007. (9) Honorary LLD from the University of Massachusetts, USA, given in 1986, revoked in June 2008. (10) Honorary LLD from the Michigan State University, USA, given in 1990, revoked in September 2008. (11) Certificate of honorary professor, China University of Foreign Affairs.


At home, the following Zimbabwean universities also honoured him with honorary degrees: (1) Honorary LLD from the University of Zimbabwe. (2) Honorary D.Litt. from Africa University, Zimbabwe. (3) Honorary D.Tech from the National University of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe. (4) Honorary D.Com from Midlands State University, Zimbabwe. (5) Honorary D.Agric from the University of Science and Technology, Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe. (6) Honorary D.Agric from the Zimbabwe Open University. (7) Honorary D.Phil (African Heritage and Philosophy) from the Great Zimbabwe University. (8) Honorary LLD from Solusi University, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.


This shows the mettle of the man the Western media now wants the world to believe was a buffoon who did not know how to run an economy and as such drove his country into penury, without the media telling how that became possible.


There is even the little matter of the withdrawn knighthood (a Knight Grand Cross in the Order of the Bath) given to him by the British government via Queen Elizabeth II in 1994. According to the British official line, the knighthood was withdrawn as “a mark of revulsion at the abuse of human rights and abject disregard for the democratic process in Zimbabwe”.


But even Queen Elizabeth II must have struggled to believe her government’s official line as it made no sense at all because Zimbabwe is a place where elections are held regularly and on schedule, and “the democratic process” is regarded – except that during the 17 years that Britain and its allies wanted Mugabe out, the “regard” accorded “the democratic process” in Zimbabwe was not to the liking of Britain and its friends.


More importantly, most people have grossed over the fact that even in Britain and the US, and in all the so-called democratic countries, if an opposition party or politician goes abroad and hobnob with or receive political patronage or money from an enemy government and comes home to act as a front for enemy penetration activities intended to unseat the sitting government, it is considered as treason. And everybody knows the fate that awaits such violators of the Treason Act everywhere in the world.


And that is exactly what Mugabe’s main opponents in Zimbabwe did. By working with enemy governments abroad to try to unseat him, his opponents committed treason in all but name and put themselves in harm’s way. They were in fact lucky that Mugabe was a different “despot” who still insisted on observing “the democratic process” in the face of such provocations.


Worse, by publicly announcing in the House of Commons in London and in the White House in Washington DC that both the British and American governments under Tony Blair and George W. Bush were working with the Zimbabwean opposition led by Morgan Tsvangirai to unseat Mugabe (as Blair and Bush undiplomatically announced in those heady days), muddied the waters so badly for the Zimbabwe opposition. And all this because Mugabe had dared to take land from white farmers for redistribution to black Zimbabweans.


In the end, London and Washington’s actions made it impossible for the Zimbabwean opposition to be seen as genuine politicians who had the national interest at heart. This played into the hands of Mugabe who just had to tell the people of Zimbabwe that the opposition was not an organically-grown party but created in London for regime change purposes. That was the conundrum that so poisoned Zimbabwe’s politics in the 17 years that the West tried in vain to bring Mugabe down.


First encounter

I first met Mugabe in 2002, two years after he launched his controversial land reform programme. At the time, if you believed the British and Western media, Zimbabwe had fallen down the bottom of some squalid hole principally because Mugabe had mismanaged the economy through incompetence and sheer tyranny.


But that was not what I saw on my first reporting trip to Zimbabwe. The economy was suffering because economic and political sanctions imposed by Britain, America and their EU allies in 2000 and 2011 were wreaking havoc. In addition, a then ongoing British and Western regime change agenda, using the local opposition as a front, was making it impossible for normal politics to be practised in Zimbabwe.


Blair and his Western allies’ sponsorship of an opposition party and opposition politicians in Zimbabwe as part of the regime change agenda forced Mugabe to adopt sometimes brutal and undemocratic responses to beat the enemy away. That in fact was part of the psychological warfare (or pysops) played on Mugabe and he sadly fell into the trap, giving his enemies abroad and opponents at home the great joy of calling him a dictator, despot, and even a Hitler.


And all this, as pointed out above, was because of Mugabe’s land reform programme. Remarkably, land had been the major grievance in Zimbabwe before, during and after the country’s liberation war that saw Mugabe winning power in 1980. For many people, in the two decades after independence, Mugabe had been too conciliatory on the land issue for their liking.


However, in 1997 a youthful Tony Blair became prime minister in Britain and with the assistance of his Secretary of State for International Development, Claire Short, Blair’s government committed one of the gravest sins in world diplomacy when it reneged on agreements that previous British governments under Mrs Margaret Thatcher and John Major had reached with Mugabe over land reform in Zimbabwe. This basically involved Britain providing funds for Mugabe’s government to buy land from white farmers, the majority of whom were British descended, for redistribution to landless blacks.


A toxic letter written by Claire Short on 5 November 1997 to Zimbabwe’s then Minister of Agriculture and Land, Kumbirai Kangai, telling the Zimbabweans: “I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and as you know we were colonised not colonisers”, poisoned London-Harare relations and left Mugabe with no options than to seize the land stolen by white settlers from 1890 onwards when Cecil Rhodes’ Pioneer Column pillaged across the native lands of Zimbabwe.

Claire Short’s incendiary letter became the spark for all things Zimbabwean thereafter. Therefore, Blair and Short share a huge responsibility for what has happened to Zimbabwe and its white farmers today.


This was the background to my first meeting with Mugabe in 2002. However, contrary to his fire-eating image painted by the Western media, I found him to be quite amiable, one of those people who appear big in photos but smaller in real life. A polite man of impeccable sartorial sense, Mugabe showed me nothing but respect in that first meeting and in all the many subsequent meetings thereafter. In all, I interviewed him 7 times over 7 years and each interviewed proved to be a classic.


Much to his credit, he never tried to use propaganda to cloud the issues during our interviews. He was genuine, forthright, and at times scathing of his enemies, particularly Blair who he nicknamed B-Lair. Mugabe’s main concern was the improvement of life for his people, which was being thwarted by the economic sanctions and other machinations by the West.


I remember Mugabe’s then Foreign Minister Stan Mudenge telling me that Robin Cook who served as Blair’s Foreign Secretary telling him on the sidelines of one meeting in 2000 that Zimbabwe had to “get rid of Bob [meaning Mugabe], or what will hit you will make your people stone you in the streets”.


Cook was just telling Mudenge that the West meant business and that if Zimbabwe retained Mugabe as president, they should not expect their economy to be normal again. The economy was going to be attacked from afar and from behind the scenes. And this is just what happened, making it difficult for Mugabe to control matters.


That notwithstanding, it remains to be said that like every human being, Mugabe made his mistakes, and sometimes very serious mistakes. However, for me, his greatest sin was not knowing when to leave the stage when the applause was loudest, and also not leaving posterity with even one book to remember him for. In my first interview with him in 2002, he said he would be prepared to go home and write his books if the ruling Zanu PF party could find a successor.


In the end, he hung on and on even as his abilities as a leader were eroded by his advanced age. He compounded it even more by refusing to groom a successor. This allowed his youthful wife Grace to try to seize the reins of power to the chagrin of Mugabe’s longstanding comrades.


The graceless commotion that Grace caused between 2014 and 2017 when she entered politics brought the house down on Mugabe in the end when the military intervened in November 2017 to put him out of power. Eventually, the man who could not be defeated by the combined might of the Western world was brought low by the machinations of his dear wife.


Now with him gone and whatever his enemies may say, Mugabe’s legacy is assured. A true son of Africa and one of its greatest warriors, he will forever be remembered as a fighter for justice and equality in Zimbabwe, although he was misunderstood deliberately by the West.



Written By
Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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