Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

This new film exposes the truth behind President Robert Mugabe’s troubles with the West. But it lacks the nuances, complexities and critical questions (other than ‘the land question’) that are key to understanding Mugabe’s legacy

Born to Ghanaian parents in Britain, Roy Agyemang, director of a new film on Robert Gabriel Mugabe, entitled ‘Mugabe: Villain or Hero?’ intended to make this film in three months but instead took three years (from 2007-2010). Its debut was at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London on 15 December 2012. The end product is much welcome as it counters the demonization of Mugabe who has fallen from grace in Western eyes. Agyemang shows how Mugabe was lauded and feted by Western leaders until 2000. Accolades and numerous honorary degrees were bestowed on Uncle Bob. Even a knighthood from the British Queen was awarded in 1994.


Yet in 2000 European leaders and America turned against Mugabe when he sought to resolve the land issue by introducing a land democratisation programme. In their imperial role as a former British colony, the British were most vitriolic in their attacks and dictates and sided with the 4,000 white Zimbabweans who had control of 80 percent of the best land. Perennially duplicitous, the British reneged on the Lancaster House Agreement of 1980 which clearly stated that for a period of ten years the ZANU government would postpone the land reform programme and Britain would provide millions of pounds to assist in the process. As the film points out, Mugabe honoured the Lancaster House Agreement not to touch land reform for ten years. It was under the Labour government of Tony Blair that matters escalated. This was a government that some grossly mis-perceived at the time to be Left-wing and were optimistic that domestic and foreign policies would be of a Left-wing orientation. That the film points to the letter of Clare Short, then Secretary of State for International Development, in an attempt to set the historical record straight, is laudable as it is a powerful indictment of the amnesia of British imperialism.


It should be pointed out this letter came in the wake of the volcanic eruption in the Overseas Dependent Territory of Montserrat in July 1997 and Short not only refused to visit the island but in response from pleas for aid, said ‘they will be wanting golden elephants next.’ On 5 November 1997, Short audaciously and patronisingly proclaimed in a letter to the ZANU government:

‘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.’

Furthermore, in her letter, she stated: ‘We do, however, recognise the very real issues you face over land reform. We believe that land reform could be an important component of a Zimbabwean programme designed to eliminate poverty. We would be prepared to support a programme of land reform that was part of a poverty eradication strategy but not on any other basis.’

In short, the Blair government, and subsequent British governments as well as other European governments have imposed sanctions on Mugabe despite the British government failing to honour the Lancaster House Agreement. Yet it was the British who lauded themselves for ‘gentlemen’s agreements’. British governments have also continued to impose sanctions even though the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) have entered into a power sharing government with the ZANU-PF since the 2008 elections. The double standards of the British government and the West in general is the strongest point made in the film as well as the point that land reform has involved 350,000 rural families. However, a stronger case and details of the time span of this reform could have been made. It would also have been interesting to expose how many white Zimbabweans remain in the country and continue to possess land, and how much land remains in their hands since the entire controversy over the ‘land question’ arose since 2000.


A positive of the film is that it was financed by Neville Hendricks, who runs a production company called UTR Films. If it had not been for Hendricks perhaps the film may never have been made or the efforts to do so would have been greater. Therefore, more people of African descent and continental African businessmen such as Hendricks are to be commended for putting their money into films about our history and issues, even when we disagree about how that history is selectively presented or mis-represented. For ‘only when lions have historians will hunters cease being heroes’.

Another positive is that the film is an entry point as a film for a younger generation of Africans both in the Diaspora and on the continent seeking to understand the vilification of Mugabe. This point was made by young Africans in the audience in the question and answer discussion after the film. Equally strong in the film is Mugabe’s nationalism. That ZANU-PF has ensured that 51 percent of shareholding in all Zimbabwean companies remains in the hands of Zimbabweans is staunchly supported by not only Zimbabweans but many other Africans. As Mugabe says in the film, ‘Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans. It cannot be for the British, it cannot be for the Americans, if you want to be friends with us, fine. You stand there and I stand here, we shake hands but remember, the gold in my country is mine.’ In response to Mugabe’s economic nationalism the audience gave a rousing applause.

Agyemang and his Zimbabwean ‘fixer’ and colleague named Gari show in the film that they acquired their accreditation to film and follow Mugabe around the country and on his international engagements. However, despite this accreditation Mugabe’s lieutenants remained wary of the two and played a game of keeping them at arm’s length from the President. When they did finally get to interview Mugabe, a fuller range of critical questions failed to be asked.


However, ‘Mugabe: Villain or Hero?’ is a film very much lacking in nuances, complexities and critical questions other than ‘the land question’. Among the criticisms is a simplistic dichotomous representation of an African leader as either villain on hero. In fact, in the film Agyemang poses rhetorically ‘what will Mugabe’s future legacy be?’ The reality is that his legacy will be a highly contested one (very much like that of Kwame Nkrumah and other continental leaders). Yet, my disquiet concerns the failure to ask some uncomfortable questions to Mugabe when the hour struck.

Among them would have been: after 32 years why has a successor not been anointed and a handover taken place? Surely a ‘revolutionary party’ and government committed to the longevity of a revolution should have groomed a successor by now? To what extent should we judge political leaders and parties by not only their economic programmes but their ability to conduct a smooth transition of leadership of the top man (or woman, as rare at it is for a woman to become head of state among 54 African states)? Surely in a country of 12.7 million a competent political leader can be found to replace an incumbent? In short, in my view, Robert Mugabe has made a significant contribution to the national liberation struggle up to a particular historical juncture and should have stepped down much earlier in the footsteps of his counterparts Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. His place in the revolutionary pantheon of African leaders is tarnished by his commitment to ‘stayism’ i.e. staying in power to the ripe age of 88 alongside his ruthlessness in dealing with his opponents during the 1981-1987 Gurkurahundi suppression of dissidents in the Ndebele regions of the country and towards other oppositional forces. It is interesting that the film fleetingly revealed that elements both within the military and ZANU-PF want Mugabe to step down, yet did not explore this further.

During the question and answer session chaired by ebullient director and presenter of Colourful Radio, Henry Bonsu, I asked why the filmmaker did not address the problematic longevity of Mugabe’s rule. A perfunctory response was that the people of Zimbabwe had voted for Mugabe. Baffour Ankomah, editor of New African magazine who has interviewed Mugabe on numerous occasions, said that he could reveal a ‘secret’ that Mugabe was being pressured to stay by elements within ZANU-PF. My minority opinion on the unjustifiable 32 years of a single leader were unpopular and were quickly dismissed in the adulation of the film with only one further criticism coming from the audience.

Back in 2008 when the Zimbabwe elections took place amidst Western mudslinging against Mugabe, the late Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, formerly Deputy Director of the Millennium Development Campaign, was a critic of not only Mugabe but other long-distance runner leaders in Africa such as Muammar Gadhafi, Yoweri Museveni, Paul Biya, Meles Zenawi and many others. Abdul-Raheem succinctly addressed why Mugabe has been uncritically defended by Africans living in the beast of the belly. He wrote in relation to Zimbabwe and Mugabe:

‘Unfortunately for Africa when one of us fails it is blamed on all of us. No one will blame Americans and other westerners for all the atrocities of George Bush. No one will even blame Brown for Blair’s evil fraternity with Bush, and other Europeans will quickly wash their hands clean of him. Yet these same people use Zimbabwe and Mugabe to beat our heads all the time. Consequently many Africans, whether presidents or peasants, have become defensive about the situation… It is high time we are more proactive in saying to the old man: thanks for the land but enough is enough of your personal rule’. [1]

In addition, Africans in the Diaspora need to rid themselves of the conditioned unconscious knee-jerk reaction of embracing in blind and unquestioning solidarity anyone attacked by the West and thereafter catapulted into an African nationalist and anti-imperialist hero or heroine. [2] It is analogous to the syndrome of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. Such reactions were particularly acute during the time Gordon Brown was in office and Brown maintained the bullish stance of his predecessor. As Abdul-Raheem contends: ‘There is nothing revolutionary in perpetuating personal rule in the name of liberation.’ [3]


Another glaring omission in the film was the gender narrative. One political commentator in the film crudely commented that the land question in Zimbabwe emerged when Europeans came to Zimbabwe without visas and passports and occupied the land on the premise that Africans were not using the land. To paraphrase the commentator who conceded he was going to be vulgar, he said: imagine if you have a beautiful wife and I came to you as a man and say you don’t know how to screw her and ‘I will screw her for you’ – what would be your reaction?

Whilst Africa is often referred to in popular culture as ‘mother Africa’; and the land is symbolically associated with fertility, as well as considered a legal possession (whether communal or individual), on an ideological level, a woman is also accepted as a male possession in patriarchal African societies. This offensive sexual analogy legitimises phallocratic indulgence. When this analogy is made in seeming jest to make an argument, such depictions of women legitimise patriarchal attitudes towards women i.e. that they are possessions of men; that they lack a voice, agency and rights.

Apart from the two Zimbabwean women at the end of the film, who briefly applauded ZANU-PF because they had become successful business women, there was invisibility of female political commentators or as participants in Zimbabwean society in the whole film. Agyemang, apologised for this, particularly as it was pointed out that the Zimbabwean Women’s League existed and a spokeswomen from this organisation could have been interviewed as well female government officials. Moreover, Zimbabwean women have played a critical role in the liberation of the country as female combatants and continue to play important roles.

After the film there was a panel discussion followed by questions and answers. The panel was initially made up of four males two Ghanaians (including the filmmaker, a Zimbabwean and a Jamaican) until pressure from a tiny but vociferous element in the front audience forced the responsive chair to concede. Two Zimbabwean women from the audience joined the three males as a tokenistic concession to address the gender imbalance. The discussion was lively as was the packed audience’s reception of the film that drew not only sporadic laughter and applause during the film but both Agyemang who briefly introduced the film and Neville Hendricks were given warm applause.

Agyemang spelled out the gruelling task of editing six hours of film down to three hours and finally to 117 minutes. Consequently, whilst recognising this tough undertaking, Zimbabwe’s role in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is another issue and set of questions that people and historians will need to reflect on as to whether Mugabe is indeed a villain or a hero. Questions such as: why did Mugabe provide arms, troops of up to 11,000 and money to the government of Laurent Kabila in 1998 against the rebel groups backed by both Rwanda and Uganda (and of course their imperialist backers in the governments of the US and UK)? [4] To what extent are the motives of Mugabe and the other regional players (i.e. Angola, Namibia, Rwanda and Uganda) undermining genuine Pan-Africanism and resolution of the conflict in the eastern Congo?

Overall, the question whether Mugabe is a villain or hero will continue to consume and divide ordinary Africans and African historians. His legacy like that of other African leaders will be a fiercely contested one for continental Africans and Africans born in the Diaspora.


* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

* Ama Biney (Dr) is a scholar-activist and the Acting Editor-in-Chief of Pambazuka News.

1. Speaking Truth to Power Selected Pan-African Postcards of Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, 2010, p. 33.
2. Ibid, p. 34.
3. Ibid, p. 33.
4. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters the Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason Stearns, 2011, p. 273.