History will curse Robert Mugabe. When he took over as prime minister in the wake of the Lancaster House agreement in early 1980, Zimbabwe was one of the most prosperous countries in Africa. Mugabe inherited excellent infrastructure, a strong economy, stable institutions, an independent judiciary, an excellent school system and the goodwill of the world.
In the course of nearly 38 years, he wrecked all of this. He corrupted his country’s democratic institutions, destroyed the economy and debauched the currency while making himself and a tiny circle of cronies and relatives spectacularly rich.
The complacent British view is that Mugabe started out well but went wrong. Sir Nicholas Soames, son of the last governor, Lord (Christopher) Soames, spelt this out on the Today programme on Wednesday morning. According to this widely held Anglocentric thesis, everything went reasonably well until Mugabe set his thugs on the white farmers in the late 1990s. It’s true this was an economic calamity for Zimbabwe, but the ugly truth is that the Mugabe regime was involved in corruption and violence right from the very beginning.
Mugabe was determined to consolidate power and eradicate all opposition to his political party, Zanu-PF. This meant taking out his rival Joshua Nkomo, whose Zapu (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) power- base lay among the Ndebele people in Matabeleland in the west of Zimbabwe.
First of all Mugabe sacked Nkomo from his cabinet, likening him to a ‘cobra in the house’. Then he turned on his supporters. Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade, an elite force trained by North Korea, was deployed in Matabeleland in a campaign of arson, torture, intimidation and mass murder.
It is estimated that approximately 20,000 people were killed over five years in the Matabeleland genocide, known as the Gukurahundi (a Shona word meaning ‘wind which blows away the chaff before the rain comes’.)