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Why Mugabe is still seen by some as a hero

Faisal al-Yafai

Published: Updated:

“All political lives end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” Robert Mugabe, until Tuesday the longest-serving head of state in the world, now heading into retirement and possibly exile, may well be pondering how his long political career has been reduced to a political aphorism.

The man who coined that aphorism came to be seen in much the same way as Mugabe. Enoch Powell, a British politician of the 1950s and 1960s, is today considered a byword for racism.

But his supporters would have called him a patriot, even after he declared his dislike for the African and Asian immigrants to Britain and advocated a re-conquest of India. Similarly Mugabe, on his long political journey, has moved from fighting white supremacy to stripping Zimbabweans of their farms simply because of the color of their skin, all while declaring himself a nationalist.

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And yet Mugabe is still, even today, even in Zimbabwe, seen as a national, even African, hero. Despite ruling for nearly four decades, despite immiserating his people, massacring thousands of them and bringing the country to the brink of financial ruin, he is still remembered by some as a revolutionary hero for his part in Zimbabwe’s independence, even by millions who were not born at the time.

With more than half of Zimbabwe’s population under the age of 30, few remember the day in 1980 when Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party swept to power, overturning white rule in what was then Rhodesia. But the memory has lingered.

Mugabe sought to invest in himself the power of the revolution; only he, by dint of his personal history, could lead the country

Faisal al-Yafai

Vast and unequal

Rhodesia at the time was a vastly unequal country. There were seven million black Zimbabweans but the approximately 100,000 white Zimbabweans owned fully half of the country’s arable land.

To see Mugabe drive through the gates of the governor’s mansion was a triumph for the country and for the ideas of African independence. The celebrations were incredible, overwhelming and deeply emotional: Zimbabweans believed they finally had their country back.

Many of Mugabe’s sins have been forgiven because he led that revolution. If that sounds familiar to readers in the Middle East, it should, because the Arab world has had its own share of leaders who first brought change to their countries and then long outstayed their welcome.

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Like Mugabe, Libyans under Muammar Qaddafi and Iraqis under Saddam Hussein were familiar with the cruelty of their rule, the extravagance of their wealth and the corruption of their inner circles. Yet both, in life and in death, found supporters willing to excuse their mistakes, in large part because of how they came to power.

The comparison with Qaddafi is particularly apt. Like Mugabe, Qaddafi led a coup against a government widely seen as a puppet of the West. Like him, he sought to portray himself as a revolutionary leader whose anti-Western stance allowed some of his countrymen to overlook many ills of the regime.

Anti-West rhetoric

Mugabe’s anti-Western rhetoric was popular in African countries, and even among some of those in power. Like Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein at the Arab League, he would often take to the stage at the African Union to denounce the west in fearsome language that more moderate African leaders would never use, but which played well with parts of the public.

Like Qaddafi in particular, his cultivated image as a revolutionary unafraid to speak truth to power masked the fact that his policies were making the country poorer, without external interference.

Like both those Arab leaders, Mugabe sought to invest in himself the power of the revolution; only he, by dint of his personal history, could lead the country. Even when it looked as if he had lost the 2008 election, Mugabe refused to step aside.

Like Qaddafi at the beginning of the Arab Spring revolution, it mattered little that the challenge to his rule came from within the country not without; it was the mere fact of opposition that outraged both leaders.

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In the years after their deaths, both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi have found the cruelty of their rules forgotten. The chaos that followed the American invasion of Iraq and the revolution in Libya meant that the enforced stability that came before is viewed through rose-tinted glasses. Even after everything, some Iraqis and Libyans look back with nostalgia.

That process has not yet begun in Zimbabwe, but it almost certainly will. The image of revolutionary leaders always lasts longer than their rule.

For now, Zimbabweans are celebrating. If Mugabe was watching television on the day he resigned, he would have seen scenes of unbridled joy from Zimbabweans, who took to the streets to sing, dance and wave the country’s flag, akin to those heady days of 1980.

Once again, Zimbabweans feel they have their country back. What a political failure that the man who pried it from the hands of white supremacists had to have it pried from his own grasp by his people.
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Faisal al-Yafai is an award-winning journalist, essayist and playwright. He has been an investigative journalist for The Guardian in London and a documentary journalist for the BBC. Al-Yafai has reported from across the Middle East, from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. He served as a Churchill Fellow in Lebanon and Indonesia. A well-known public speaker, al-Yafai is a frequent guest on television networks such as CNN, the BBC and France 24. He can be followed on Twitter @FaisalAlYafai.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.