Although I never served in his country, Mr Mugabe’s passing brings back some significant memories.
We had just arrived for my first overseas diplomatic duties in Ethiopia, in the summer (or rather the rainy season) of 1979, when the independence process of the former Rhodesia was concluded with the elections. The then Ethiopian leader, col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, had been a staunch ally of Mr Mugabe during the liberation struggle.
Due to some hiccup, the Ethiopian state media believed at first that his rival, Joshua NKomo, had won the elections. Disappointed, Mengistu’s people (in this case the East German STASI agents who wrote for the English-language Ethiopian Herald) announced ZIMBABWE ELECTIONS RIGGED. Not that we attached much credence to the paper even when it had the facts right, but of course we sniggered about this political gaffe when the truth came out and Mengistu’s man was the winner after all.
A few years later, when we settled in Jamaica, Bob Marley’s concert during the independence celebrations in Harare in April of 1980 was seen as the reggae-star’s highest moment. It was a leap forward for reggae and its greatest ambassador, to be accepted as a legitimate political force worldwide.
Fast forward. As with so many things in Africa after independence, the high hopes turned increasingly sour. In 2011, I was involved in the proceedings when the European Union imposed sanctions on Mugabe and his colleagues in government in reaction to his increasingly dictatorial rule. I saw Mugabe a few times at the UN, but never up close till…
Fast forward again. September 2012: the Belgian diplomacy in New York is hosting princess Astrid, the sister of king Philip, who is UN goodwill-ambassador for the fight against malaria. Who turns up, uninvited, at the celebration in a major midtown Manhattan hotel? Mr Mugabe… The clever old man was provocative as ever. He tried to inch close enough to the princess to be in a picture with her, so as to embarrass the countries sanctioning him…. A curious little choreography developed, with Mr Mugabe’s security pushing one way, and we, Belgian diplomats, countering the moves with, of course, diplomatic subtlety.
That’s when I saw the man for real. He looked remarkably durable for his then 88 years. And although he was transpiring profusely, his eyes were alert and his mouth set harshly. He was a bit of a living monument, like it or not- and in spite of the narrow, Hitlerian mustache.
Due to the long-lasting unrepentant racism in Southern Africa, Zimbabwe came twenty years late to her independence. But the cycles the country have gone through are not different from what has passed and is still ongoing in other places on the continent. Mr Mugabe’s legacy is politely called ‘mixed’. So is our own, of all the former colonial powers, in Africa. It was one of Mr Mugabe’s greatest mistakes to make powerful enemies, most notably in London and the BBC, who responded in kind to his hatred.
Maybe his last true friend was Col. Mengistu, who is still hiding out in Zimbabwe where he found refuge after his fall in 1992. Mr Mugabe may have been a dictator, but he had his loyalties.