Mugabe: The Death of a Dictator

Reflections on how a ruthless tyrant damaged his nation and tortured his people.

Back in my Africa days, I went to Zimbabwe with a South African friend (now an American, by the way) who was advising the Zimbabwean tobacco growers on how to deal with Robert Mugabe, the longtime leader of the country. The (white) tobacco growers were making a generous offer. They would train black farmers to grow tobacco, harvest it, and bring it to market, working alongside them at each stage.  Those who proved capable of doing the work would receive -- gratis -- a plot of land, and that plot was destined to grow ever larger with the passage of time.

Mugabe didn’t approve. He wanted the land, the training and the income from the tobacco sales to go to his wife and her buddies. Today, the last of the white farmers have left Zimbabwe, and Mugabe’s wife, Grace, is the heir of the tobacco business, along with rumored kickbacks from local businessmen.

I was asked to brief some black leaders in Washington, and received no cooperation. Members of the Black Caucus refused to support the scheme to provide black Zimbabweans with free training and land, and white Zimbabweans were deprived of the normal rights of the country’s black citizens. Mugabe and Grace were widely accused of corruption, and many Washingtonians, along with many Brits, believed the corruption extended to supporters in the American and British capitals.   

White Zimbabweans had no citizenship rights, and, in 2000, Mugabe led a campaign to evict white farmers from their land. People who worked for Mugabe often murdered these white farmers and looted and burned their homes. Supporters of his, who were given land to farm, often didn’t know how to do so properly. Crops withered, a famine ensued, and the economy suffered, with many Zimbabweans brought to near-starvation.

In 2008, the Queen approved a motion that stripped Mugabe of his honorary knighthood over his ‘abuse of human rights.’ The most devastating blow delivered by Mugabe to his country’s economic system.  As the New York Daily News put it in its obituary,

Perhaps worst of all, he printed money by the truckload, sending the economy into a tailspin. Hyperinflation spiraled to 5 quintillion percent in 2008 before he was forced to abolish the local Zimbabwe dollar.

Every time the people rose against Mugabe’s corrupt tyranny, he found a way to thwart them. Even when, in 2017, his own party and the Army joined forces to remove him, his successor was not a political opponent, but Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s hand-picked right-hand man. 

The United States Embassy in Harare issued a warm statement when Mugabe died:

The United States extends its condolences to the Mugabe family and the people of Zimbabwe as they mourn the passing of former President Robert Mugabe. We join the world in reflecting on his legacy in securing Zimbabwe’s independence.

But this statement was quickly canceled when those who had followed the destruction of Zimbabwe, the wreckage of its currency, the corrupt transfer of farm land, and the sacking of the national treasury by Mugabe, his family, and their friends, protested the official mourning over Mugabe’s death at age 95. 

Zimbabwe had a lot going for it when Mugabe took it over after ten years in British jails, but it could not survive the corruption of his family and friends. He was a canny tyrant who paid off his supporters throughout Africa and the West, did not hesitate to crush his critics, and knew where and how to stash his ill-gotten gains.

Alas, there is a racial dimension to this story that I encountered in Washington. Mugabe’s friends in the American capital were invariably black, including stars such as Jesse Jackson, and when they weren’t, they were in cahoots with white luminaries like the Clintons, who were very much involved in Mugabe’s shenanigans. In this way, Mugabe’s fundamental anti-white impulses were translated into American politics, elevating black supporters over those others who pushed for a coherent human rights policy towards Zimbabwe.

Africa is not a racist place -- conflicts tend to be among tribes, not “races” -- but there are plenty of racists there. Mugabe would have been far more likely to deserve American praise for “his legacy in securing Zimbabwean independence” if he had better understood the dynamics of capitalism instead of focusing his malevolent attention on how best to steal the wealth of the nation.

And that would have made it easier for the American political class to help Zimbabwe—the whole nation—instead of one family.

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