Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – On February 21, Africa’s oldest sitting head of state, President Robert Gabriel Mugabe of Zimbabwe, turns 90. At the helm since the country’s independence in April 1980, Mugabe – once a shy and studious boy who kept company with Catholic priests – became Zimbabwe’s most renowned freedom fighter whose distinct brand of nationalism, pan-Africanism and authoritarianism has enabled him to rule the country for 34 years.
Armed with revolutionary zeal and degrees in education, economics and law earned during his 11-year incarceration, Mugabe’s early policies sought to improve the lives of the disadvantaged. However, as time wore on, the chaotic struggle unleashed by Mugabe’s more controversial policies on land reform, black empowerment and war veterans brought the country to its knees.
The president’s birthday is a day reserved to celebrate Mugabe’s role in the anti-colonial war. Vintage footage of Mugabe negotiating with the colonial government for a ceasefire and giving speeches as prime minister in the early 1980s have already started looping on state media. The 21st February Movement, created in 1986 to honour the president, now has a presence on social networks like Facebook.
However, beyond the parades of children in red sashes and Mugabe tribute songs, reports of forced attendance and donations have cast a shadow over the president’s birthday in recent years.
“In my view, 21 February cannot be an important date in Zimbabwe because it celebrates authoritarianism premised on one-man rule, and its celebration is associated with the use of coercive force, abuse of public resources in a country experiencing high levels of poverty,” said Pedzisai Ruhanya, a political analyst and rights activist.
In the pan-African pantheon
Commenting on Mugabe’s historicised portrait, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, author and professor at the University of South Africa, told Al Jazeera that the Zimbabwean leader still had aspirations to be held to be in the same regard as other pan-African liberators from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Ghana.
Mugabe wants to be remembered as a consistent anti-colonial revolutionary who led Zimbabwe to independence.
“Mugabe wants to be remembered as a consistent anti-colonial revolutionary who led Zimbabwe to independence and continued to rail against neo-colonialism and global imperialism, while safeguarding Zimbabwe’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It’s clear he wishes to be in the same league legacy-wise with such stalwarts of decolonisation as Patrice Lumumba, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah and Nelson Mandela,” he said.
Gatsheni added that although Mugabe’s pan-Africanist ideals and anti-Western stance were admired by many across the continent, the use of violence and intimidation as a political tactic hurt his popularity at home and his relations with leaders such as President Ian Khama of Botswana and Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete.
At times, the dark past of state-sponsored violence and regional marginalisation has meant Mugabe and Zanu PF has struggled to gain popularity in the southern Matebeleland provinces, the home of many leaders of the rival liberation movement, Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu). In the early 1980s, longstanding political and ethnic rivalry between the military units of Zanu-PF and Zapu exploded into conflict in the Matebeleland and Midlands provinces, resulting in the massacre of more than 20,000 Ndebele and Kalanga people led by the elite Fifth Brigade.
Since the founding of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999, Mugabe and Zanu-PF have been repeatedly challenged at the polls. But the elections have all been marred by numerous electoral irregularities and grave human rights abuses, with the majority of casualties being MDC supporters. In 2013, a fairly peaceful poll was held on July 31, but the opposition rejected the election results as being rigged.
Mugabe and the West
Now in his seventh term in office, Mugabe – the man once knighted by the Queen of England – remains under sanctions since his fallout with the British government and the European Union. In 2002, during the most intense period of land confiscations and state-sponsored repression of the opposition, the EU imposed targeted sanctions on Zanu-PF officials. Travel bans and asset freezes were enforced, but as Zimbabwe has become more stable, the EU has removed some individuals from the lists. EU bans against the remaining officials were eased at an annual review on February 17, but not on Mugabe and his wife, Grace.
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Zanu-PF spokesperson Rugare Gumbo told Al Jazeera that while the easing of sanctions was a welcome move, the continued targeting of Mugabe remained unacceptable. “You don’t lift sanctions on some people and not on others… What has Mugabe done that others have not done in Zimbabwe?” said Gumbo.
Knox Chitiyo, an associate fellow in the Africa Programme at London-based think tank Chatham House, described sanctions as a futile solution to Zimbabwe’s political crisis. “Sanctions have not been effective. They’ve been at best a blunt instrument, and at worst counter-productive, for the EU. They’ve not changed behaviours,” Chitiyo said.
He added that the opposition’s support of Western sanctions gave Zanu-PF a way to malign the MDC. “Zanu-PF has used sanctions as a tool with which to undermine the opposition by accusing them of serving foreign interests, but the opposition has struggled to find an effective counter-narrative to win hearts and minds.”
In charge too long?
Endless rumours of Mugabe’s failing health abound, and false death reports often make the rounds, but Mugabe remains confident he will steer the country and his party through to the next elections in 2018. A Wikileaks cable released in 2011 claimed Mugabe had prostate cancer, but Gumbo brushed away concerns about Mugabe’s health. “There may be views about his age and his health, but as long as he has the support of the people, there is nothing wrong. As it was proved in the harmonised elections held on July 31, he leads with the wishes of the people.”
With the majority of Zimbabwe’s 13.7 million people under the age of 35, Mugabe is the only ruler many Zimbabweans have ever known. Joanna Moyo, 24 – a university graduate from Chegutu, a small town near Harare – questioned Mugabe’s lengthy rule. “I don’t think it’s right that he’s still in power considering his age. He’s been there since 1980. So does it mean that he is the only person capable being the president? We need rotation, just as we rotate crops in the field.”
Celebrating his 90th birthday with a party costing $1m, Mugabe has earned his place in history as an African leader and a freedom fighter. But history will also remember the struggles of ordinary Zimbabweans, as well as the subtle and stark brutalities of his long rule.
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