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The Standard

Like Uganda’s Amin – but unlike South Africa’s Mandela – Robert Mugabe fully understood that national liberation meant little if it was not underpinned by popular economic emancipation. That is why Amin and Mugabe became enemies of the west, but Mandela was embraced as an icon. The people celebrating Mugabe’s fall do not understand imperialism. Mugabe’s true legacy will be appreciated in the coming days.

Discussions about Robert Mugabe’s excesses as a classic “African dictator” are incomplete without comparisons with Uganda’s Idi Amin. Interestingly, as Amin was leaving power in 1979, Mugabe was just ascending as a victorious anti-colonial hero. He became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980.  Having come to power after dislodging white-settler minority rule, he has been compared to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, another dark-skinned man who came to power ending white minority rule 14 years later. Well, as Slavoj Žižek noted upon his death, “Mandela was not Mugabe.” While Mandela is [uncritically] considered a universal hero, Mugabe, just like Idi Amin, easily takes the slot for universal villain in his time. 

In both countries, South Africa and Zimbabwe, the end of settler-white minority rule presented the anti-colonial intelligentsia with similar challenges in their different contexts: a political and economic question. While South Africa opted to settle the political question (without a definite timeline on the economic/land question), as many ANC leaders sought to profit from the struggle under the claims of strategic compromise, Zimbabwe’s leadership, on the other hand, viewed liberation as intrinsically linked with the economy. Thus liberation meant an aggressive and simultaneous pursuit of political and economic reforms. This is where the Idi Amin comparison to Robert Mugabe becomes more appropriate—liberation could not simply be political.

I have been ghostwriting for a while now.  In this other life of mine, I have had chances for lengthy conversations with some of Uganda’s most accomplished businesspeople, and fine ordinary individuals. These senior citizens saw the arrival of independence in Uganda in 1962 and danced to the drums of uhuru. But besides having black skinned men occupying the highest offices in the land, independence had remained behind. The status quo remained intact.

Under the government of President Idi Amin, most of my interlocutors had come of age and were young adults hustling from pillar to post to cobble an existence. Some had had a little education but besides a job in the public service, Kampala’s city highways were structurally a preserve of Indian businessmen. Many times, my elderly interlocutors have emphasized that the only time Ugandans felt truly independent was when President Amin declared his economic war in 1972, demanding that people of Asian descent leave the country in 90 days. Ugandan academic of Indian descent Mahmood Mamdani, who was one of those booted out of Uganda, has referred to the same reality of Ugandans feeling independent only after 1972.

For this, Idi Amin was called names. Most prominently, the “village tyrant” in Denis Hills’ The White Pumpkin, and cynical fictional and cinematic treat as the “last king of Scotland!” Since most Indians banked in British banks and held British passports, the UK which benefited most from their presence in Uganda—having brought them here in the first place—had to deal with the situation of either sanctioning a run on their banks or accepting an influx of Indians into the United Kingdom. England grudgingly settled for the latter, and went on to embark on an aggressive anti-Amin campaign. Using its very articulate organs of propaganda and imperialism (BBC Radio is recorded to have provided the confirmation signal for the Queen’s approval of the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mossadegh who was rooting for the nationalization of Iranian oil), especially the BBC, The Guardian and The Economist, the United Kingdom framed a global perception of Idi Amin as a belligerent Neanderthal. They did a fine job to the point that even Ugandan nationals, the prime beneficiaries of the policy were infected into firm belief of Amin’s idiocy.

With a combination of tight economic and political sanctions, and a largely illiterate mass, which had been hitherto structurally kicked out of business, the country’s economy collapsed. Long queues for basics such as sugar and soap became common, and other items such as motor vehicles and fuel increasingly became difficult to get. Sadly, this collapse the Ugandan economy during the Economic War is often read as a result of Amin’s uneducated judgment, yet it is the absolute affirmation of how native Ugandans had been condemned to the backwaters of business. As my ghostwriting encounters have revealed, for many Ugandans, Idi Amin remains their true anti-colonial hero—a picture that continues to become more perceptible every passing day.

This expose of Idi Amin helps to put President Robert Mugabe in proper context. The picture that quickly emerges is that Mugabe and Amin have a lot in common, which undergirds their international—mostly western/European and North American—revilement.  Firstly, both men saw national independence through the lens of economic independence.  If it was liberation of markets for Ugandans, it was land acquisition for Zimbabweans.  By independence, 700,000 Zimbabwean farmers were squeezed to 53% of the country’s poorest lands, and a 6000 white settler community, majority of whom were not native/pioneer Zimbabweans, owned 15.5 million hectares of the country’s most productive lands—selling to fellow whites arriving from Great Britain after World War II. 

Secondly, both men saw liberation as a process that ought to mirror its opposite, colonial exploitation. In very Fanonian terms, if the colonizer exploited the native through the use of violence or force (land grabbing, state-structured monopolies) so the process of liberation had to be forceful.  Zimbabwean war veterans used tactics of war to mobilize the acquisition of land from white-settlers in the 2000s, which in many cases were defined by violence. With these forceful acquisitions, both under Amin and under Mugabe, their economies were forced into pandemonium, a situation that would be cheerfully dramatized by the British/American media framing them as the world’s foremost nincompoops! But this collapse was often exacerbated by meticulous and aggressive acts of sabotage by compradors.

The result of this was that Amin and Mugabe both became more high-handed, ruthlessly responding and haphazardly defining to treasonable activities of the comprador elites. Many were jailed while others were summarily executed. It is also worth noting that both men were once darlings of Great Britain (with Mugabe even receiving a knighthood!) till they started to pursue more comprehensive liberation initiatives. For the fact that Mugabe had also been imprisoned by the white-settler regime before ascending to leadership, they would have moved toe-to-toe with Mandela. But a pursuit of economic/land reform spoilt this love affair, which had started well.

Zimbabweans’ anger against Robert Mugabe ought to be appreciated as a three-pronged complex—with nothing to do with Mugabe’s politics and economic reforms, but rather Mugabe the individual, who also operated against a hostile and malicious capitalist backlash. Firstly, like several other post-colonial regimes, the challenges of state building were extreme in their manifestation. Political administration was difficult tending towards dictatorship and sometimes civil war as the anti-colonial intelligentsia had to contend with innumerable challenges in the context of stealthy aggressive neo-colonial capitalist empire, which wanted to sustain economic control even after granting independence—and fancied working with elite compradors.

At the risk of seeming to exonerate the African intelligentsia for their otherwise unsustainable actions such as rampant corruption, over-indulgence and aggravated self-righteousness, my contention here is that it was not unique to Robert Mugabe who stands out as our foremost universal villain. The struggle for a truly national identity also complicated matters as accusations and tribal and clannist tendencies terribly cracked state-building projects—as has been variously claimed in the land reform initiatives in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.  It is evident that the only thing that remained in Mugabe’s coat was his anti-colonial legacy, whose lustre became more unattractive the more the colonizer fetishized herself as benevolent despite remaining vamporish in character.

Secondly, Mugabe’s old age has also wildly fired up Zimbabweans against the man. This has received undue popularity by media which developed a penchant to capture him in dozy positions—creating the impression of a tired and useless old man. Our uncritical obsession with the well-marketed electoral democracies/modernities, which advocate term-limits and age-caps, despite actually having little to do with leadership (provision of public goods and services—as Zimbabwe ranks really high on the African continent in the provisions of goods and services such as education) also made matters difficult for old Mugabe.  Against this, Mugabe’s long stay in power—despite his stellar liberationist hue and service delivery (in comparison with the rest of the continent)—came to attract a rather benign negative perception. The thoroughly profiled temperament and profligacy of his wife, Grace Ntombizodwa Mugabe did not make matters any better. She unreflectively portrayed herself, and by extension her husband, as unscrupulously drowning in luxury and profiteering from the presidency at the expense of the ordinary Zimbabwean. A combination of all these conspired against Mugabe.

In this moment, Zimbabweans have dislodged the man, Mugabe, but the character and personality of the of ZANU-PF, which he nurtured and cultivated remain very much established. With the war veterans in charge of proceedings, and the land reform seen as working, it is evident Mugabe’s legacy will stay for a long while. With Mandela’s South Africa seeing more “fall” demonstrations, Mugabe’s star may become more appreciable in the near future as the challenges of the modern state in Africa remain mostly unchanged. To a good degree, we presently live under a fetishized form of foreign domination, and subtler forms of exploitation but consistent in character as of old.

Žižek was right: Mandela will never be Mugabe: If Mugabe had really lost the cause for liberation of Zimbabwe, he would be a universal hero.

* YUSUF SERUNKUMA is a PhD Fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR).



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Comments (3)

  • mugenyijonah's picture

    Yusuf is right, failures in African political independence are celebrated in the west as heroes while true heroes of Africa are conceptualised as villains! I received a note from a friend from the west who tagged the film, "The last king of Scotland" the best film from Uganda ever. I tried to explain a few issues to her: First, that was a western script which did not at all represent the Idd Amin we know in Uganda. Secondly, I told her that many Ugandans would rank Amin as the best president ever in terms of developing the capacity for Ugandans to understand economics and politics. She was speechless! She knew Amin as a villain, a cannibal, and so many other despotic titles. Mugabe has been a victim of such but he managed to stand until he couldnt. He remains the true hero of Zimbabwe and his legacy will without a doubt continue to flourish in both Zimbabwe and Africa in general. Let the man rest, he has done a tremendous job!

    Nov 27, 2017
  • mufana47's picture

    The Zimbabwe coup was a massive defeat for Black Economic Empowerment. Now I hear that some of the farms are being given back to the previous white owners, which is a massive defeat of the whole rationale of waging the armed struggle. Mugabe was also the most eloquent advocate for Africa. Now I also hear that some African states are preparing to establish diplomatic ties with Morocco and Israel, which means that the Saharawi and Palestinian people will not have anyone to speak for them at AU.

    Dec 23, 2017
  • munhumutema's picture

    The battle for Black liberation all over the world will not be won by angels. I accept that Mugabe made big mistakes but at least he made a start for us to really talk about Black empowerment. As they always, say, if you don't want to make mistakes, do nothing. If you don't want a dirty kitchen, don't cook. At least Mugabe did something.

    Mar 08, 2018