President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s liberation icon, exemplified to the fullest what being a strongman means in African politics. During the first decade after independence, he inspired a proud nation to believe in itself as he oversaw the development of a good transportation system, health and education infrastructure, clean cities, and a booming agricultural sector.
However, Mugabe’s leadership ended up portraying Africa’s worrying story whereby a few steps of progress are outdone by more backward steps caused by poor governance and leaders’ preoccupation with preservation of political power. The results of all this are retarded economics and a multitude of missed opportunities to decisively transform the lives of Africans and drive them out of poverty and ill health. Mugabe’s rule shows why leadership matters, and why it is important to be consistent and holistic in addressing Africa’s formidable development challenges.
Below are the four governance lessons I think we can draw from Mugabe’s leadership:
Investing in people
Those who believe that quality human capital is a critical ingredient to Africa’s development would be bound to praise Mugabe for building effective primary healthcare delivery and education systems in the 1980s and 1990s that led Zimbabwe, alongside Kenya and Botswana, to pioneer what came to be termed irreversible declines in child death rates and birth rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. Zimbabwe’s relatively effective educational system has produced Sub-Saharan Africa’s highest adult literacy rate of 94 percent in 2015, according to Unesco data, compared to Malawi’s 62.1 percent in the same year.
Although progress in education and health has stalled since 2000 due to the economic downturn the country continues to experience, Zimbabwe’s health indicators have remained impeccable compared to many other African countries, indicating that human capital investments have long-term impacts. However, when we benchmark Zimbabwe against upper middle income countries or where the country would have been had it sustained its positive development trajectory, the lost opportunity resulting from the last half of Mugabe’s rule is evident.
The fact that Mugabe died in Singapore is quite telling. If African leaders make the right investments in healthcare, we would not have many of our leaders and other rich people flying abroad to seek medical care while those who cannot afford to fly out die needlessly in the ill-equipped hospitals at home. The state of healthcare in many African countries, including Malawi, is deplorable, to say the least. If you want to understand what I am talking about, visit the country’s central hospitals and you will be astounded.
I don’t think African countries, including Malawi, are too poor to address the awful state of our healthcare system; we just need to get serious and redefine what our priorities should be.
Back up pan-Africanism rhetoric with accountability
One thing that many sympathisers have praised Mugabe for over the years is his resolve to gallantly stand up against neo-colonialism and Western domination in driving Africa’s politics and development agenda. He was a great orator up to the very end, giving politically biting speeches at the African Union (AU), United Nations General Assembly and many other forums, often without referring to notes. In the end though, one has to ask the question—what did all that tough talk and laughter that it generated lead to?
We need to fight neo-colonialism and take charge of our own destiny as Africans yes, but we also need to recognise that a lot of the unfair trading and development parameters that handicap Africa’s development prospects cannot be fought and addressed simply by tough talk by one leader or country, and more so when the country depends on the same Western powers for budget support and general economic survival.
Zimbabwe would most probably have been much further than where it is now if Mugabe’s tough talking was backed up by similar levels of energy and resolve to fight corruption and reinforce accountability in service delivery and use of public resources. The shift in political and economic alignment to China has not helped that much in restoring Zimbabwe’s economy.
In the end, Africa needs to step back and redefine its strategic goals and develop strategic partnerships with the West or the East to facilitate achievement of its goals, and stop dancing to the tune and development visions of the global economic powers.
Don’t stay too long in power
Mugabe’s reign presents a perfect example of why we need presidential term limits and avoid letting leaders stay in power for too long. There are countless examples of leaders who started very well and gave huge hope to their people, only to be embarrassingly forced out of office because they stayed in power for too long and lost sight of what the power was meant to be used for. Clinging on to leadership inevitably leads one to assume absolute power and shift the national agenda from nation-building to power preservation, which is characterised by entrenched dictatorship, intolerance of political opponents, and economic plunder.
There should be no dispute that something needed to be done to fix the skewed land ownership and ensure Zimbabweans do not continue to be landless in their own land while the minority white people owned big chunks of the good arable land. However, it is evident that the “Fast Track Land Reform” initiative that Mugabe initiated in 2000 was deliberately executed in a brutal, violent and disorderly manner primarily to fight for political survival and consolidate power amid growing public support for the opposition.
The forced land requisition and redistribution debacle marked the beginning of the downfall of the once mighty Zimbabwe economy. While others may argue that what ‘killed’ the Zimbabwean economy is the “economic sabotage” that the West resorted to through unwarranted economic sanctions designed to achieve regime change, the fact that cannot be refuted is that the economy collapsed under Mugabe’s watch and the buck stopped at him as State President. As a result, the country that was once the breadbasket for much of southern Africa started having food shortages and large numbers of Zimbabweans who could not stomach the deteriorating situation left the country.
Another key consequence of staying too long in power manifested in the way the succession politics was managed as Mugabe’s health was deteriorating with age. When leaders know that they have not been truthful to the expectations of the power entrusted in them by voters and indulged in excesses, they feel insecure about the future and resort to grooming family members to take over the presidency. It took the military to come in and force Mugabe out of power two years ago to halt what looked like Grace Mugabe’s unstoppable march to the presidency. Zimbabweans scelebrated the downfall of Mugabe. Two years later, it is evident that this military-led revolution is not the transformation that Zimbabweans expected, and it is clear that the country’s economic and political mess will take long to fix.
Tolerate political opponents
Mugabe’s rule also provides valuable lessons on the need to co-exist and tolerate political
opponents. The Gukurahundi massacres, whereby thousands of Ndebele civilians belonging to the opposition African People’s Union Party under the leadership of Joshua Nkomo were killed and tortured by the state security machinery, between 1983 and 1987 marked a huge blemish on Mugabe’s leadership profile. Although this political crisis ended well with the appointment of Nkomo as vice-president and his party formally merging with the governing Zimbabwe African National Union, the torture and violence vented on the opposition after Mugabe’s alleged loss in the 2008 elections demonstrated how desperate the regime was to keep power.
There should never be justification for butchering political opponents, no matter what power stakes are there. The recent examples of incumbent leaders accepting election defeats in Ghana and Nigeria provide the rare hope that we may be headed towards a point whereby African leaders will understand that the mandate to rule is given by the people through elections and that it is fine to handover power to the opposition when the same voters decide to withdraw the mandate through elections.