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The Fall of the House of Mugabe

And the prevailing myth.

7:00 PM, Apr 18, 2010 • By JOHN NOONAN
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“Greetings in the name of freedom,” proclaimed the newly minted prime minster, Robert Mugabe, during Zimbabwe’s independence celebration in 1980. His words marked one of the most brilliant transitions of power in recent history, as the last conflict of the post-colonial retreat faded into history. The white rulers of the renegade Rhodesia had ceded power to African nationalists, after assurances by British mediators that free markets and democracy would be preserved.

The Fall of the House of Mugabe

So in the fashion of a true capitalistic democracy, it is said that the first words uttered in the new Zimbabwe were, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers.” The reggae band, which scribed the nationalist coda “Zimbabwe,” had traveled to the capital of Salisbury to help usher in a new epoch of African optimism.  But amidst all the music and celebrations came a sobering moment, in the form of prudent advice from a most unlikely source: President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. Pulling Mugabe aside shortly after the independence celebrations, Nyerere delivered an ominous warning and powerful plea for good governance.

At the time, Nyerere’s warning may have seemed overly cautious. Though Africa’s post-colonial era had not gone well (war and genocide were common), the breakaway republic of Rhodesia was the one nation that had managed to resist the tide of anarchy sweeping the sub-Saharan region, all while weathering its own fierce internal conflict. Though marred by its discriminatory policies, Rhodesia was a shining beacon of prosperity in an otherwise dark continent. It was, by all accounts, an island of class and civilization awkwardly situated in the heart of the third world. Unemployment hovered around 5 percent. Health services were on par with the United States and Western Europe. The crime rate ranked among the lowest on the planet. A universal education system, along with modern highways and a magnificent network of railroads and telephone lines, stimulated an economy asphyxiated by UN sanctions and a violent internal conflict to rival those of Singapore and South Korea. Africans, denied voting rights but free of South African style apartheid, were fully incorporated into Rhodesia’s civil services; while many others were successful business owners, educators, doctors, and lawyers. When Robert Mugabe inherited the nation on April 18, 1980, he was also heir to a treasure that existed nowhere else on the continent: a boisterous African middle class.

Mugabe’s tenure during that first decade was almost flawless. Though a keen student of Maoist economic and revolutionary philosophies, he sagely kept government out of the new Zimbabwe’s three most profitable industries: massive, modern commercial farms which produced enough foodstuffs to feed roughly half of Africa, rich deposits of gold, chrome, copper, and other bulging veins of mineral wealth, and a tourism industry that included yawing game reserves and the thundering Victoria Falls. Mugabe retained experienced Europeans to run his military, banks, and courts, and was able to open the fledgling nation to an army of eager foreign investors. With foreign capital pouring in, he used that wealth to invest in Zimbabwe’s future. He built schools and hospitals, while aggressively pumping money into the national infrastructure. When the British-mandated Lancaster House Agreement between the Rhodesian government and Mugabe’s nationalist faction ended in 1987, Zimbabwe looked more like Europe than Africa.  

Downfall

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