In 1980, after coming to power following the brutal 15-year guerrilla war he led against white minority rule, Robert Mugabe, independent Zimbabwe’s first leader, made an extraordinary speech in which he addressed the country’s anxious white population:
“If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend. If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds me to you.”
I was 12 years old at the time, and it was partly because of that moving speech that my parents — white Africans of many generations — chose to stay in Zimbabwe, though an estimated 60 percent of the country’s white population would leave over the next six years. But in the early 2000s, with the country beset by corruption and misrule and a powerful opposition party on the rise, Mugabe gave a very different speech aimed at white Zimbabweans. “To them we say, they have become our enemies. Go back to Britain.”
If you think the United States is increasingly poisoned by rally-the-base, divide and rule tactics, Mugabe, who died in a hospital in Singapore on Friday after leading Zimbabwe for 37 years until a surreal coup in 2017, was the master at it. No conventional tyrant — he had multiple degrees and loved cricket, tea and Savile Row suits — he followed a simple rule when it came to politics: find an enemy, isolate it, attack it and never take responsibility for the chaos or bloodshed that ensues. And here’s the thing: It worked for him.
The first Zimbabweans to feel his wrath were the minority Ndebele people of Matabeleland in southern Zimbabwe. In the early 1980s, to quell an uprising of Ndebele dissidents, he sent in a North Korea-trained military unit, the Fifth Brigade. Some 20,000 Ndebele civilians were killed in the slaughter, which is known in Zimbabwe as Gukurahundi — “the rain that washes away the chaff.” By 1987, the minority Ndebele political party was consumed by his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and the country became a de facto one-party state.
Then, in the mid-1990s, beset with corruption scandals and an AIDS epidemic, he began a bizarre campaign against the country’s LGBT population, describing same-sex couples as “lower than dogs and pigs” and claiming homosexuality was a European import responsible for AIDS.
This was a forerunner to what was to start in 2000. That year, Mugabe shockingly lost a referendum to change the constitution in his favor. Far from taking it on the chin, he promised his angry base land. And so began the violent invasions of mostly white-owned commercial farms. Never mind that many of these farmers, including my parents, had bought their land after 1980 with Mugabe’s approval.
But while white farmers were the vocal target of his ire — and the focus of most press coverage in the West — Mugabe’s real targets were the nearly 1 million black farmworkers and families who formed the base of the opposition party’s support and were left without jobs and livelihoods in the aftermath. The consequences of the invasions reverberate today: The economy collapsed, hyperinflation set in, more than 3 million Zimbabweans fled into exile, and sanctions and isolation followed.
And yet, despite the disaster, Mugabe’s popularity soared with neighboring African leaders and millions of Africans, who saw him as standing up to the imperialists. Spend time on social media this week, and you will find East and West Africans telling Zimbabweans who might have lost everything under Mugabe how lucky they are to have had him.
Eventually you run out of enemies, though, and have to turn on your friends. And so it was that in 2017, rapidly aging and in thrall to a young wife, Grace, who had her own political ambitions, he turned on his longtime allies, including military generals who had helped him come to power and his vice president (and supposed successor) Emmerson Mnangagwa. That November, he fired Mnangagwa, who went on the run for his life, fearing Mugabe’s hit squads.
But this time, Mugabe had chosen the wrong target. Within about two weeks, Mugabe was toppled in a near-bloodless military coup, and Mnangagwa returned to the county as its new leader.
Yet, even in his overthrow, Mugabe defied convention. Far from being jailed, exiled or strung up in the town square, he negotiated a cozy deal with new rulers in which he kept his lavish Harare mansion, got a handsome $10 million payout and was free to fly to Singapore for that state-of the-art medical treatment — while back home the country was on life support, the local hospitals regularly running on generators because the electric power doesn’t work.
Indeed, this week, he will be buried in prime real estate in the country’s Heroes Acre, and the most rousing tributes are likely to come from the new president and military leaders who overthrew him. His country is in ruins, but who can say his tactics didn’t work for him personally to the very end?
Douglas Rogers is a Zimbabwean writer and the author of “Two Weeks in November: The Astonishing Untold Story of the Operation that Toppled Mugabe.”