Opinions Sat, 13 Feb 2021

What I told Robert Mugabe 22 years ago

In a column published in the Mail and Guardian of Johannesburg

on 12 Feb 1999, I wrote:

Watch it, Bob, they’ll turn on you!


Zimbabwe’s success as a nation means a lot to me, for I have invested a great deal of emotional capital in the country. I am one of the few non-Zimbabweans who can say I knew the late Herbert Chitepo personally. (he was the leader of ZANU until a bomb blew him up in Lusaka in March 1975); I knew the late Josiah Tongogara personally; and of course, I do know Comrade Bob Mugabe…

But enough of name-dropping. That is only a prelude to saying that I have to tell Comrade Robert Mugabe that I am not at all happy - indeed, I am very apprehensive - about what’s going on in his government.

When a government begins to “crack down” on the media, as the Zimbabwe government is doing, it is a symptom of something really rotten going on.

Now, I don’t make that statement as a journalist engaging in special pleading on behalf of members of his profession. If, for instance, the Zimbabwe government’s belief that some of the black journalists in the country are collaborating with racists in Zimbabwe and South Africa to bring it down by coup d’etat, is well-founded, it would make one want to puke. To bring the likes of Ian Smith back to power, or what?

But even if the Zimbabwe government has evidence to confirm this, the way to go about matters is not to allow the army to torture the journalists, or to bring charges against the journalists under the Law and Order Maintenance Act inherited from the Smith regime, is it?

It is actually a shame that Mugabe has allowed that Act to remain on Zimbabwe’s statute books. For like South Africa’s Suppression of Communism Act, it arouses deep emotions. This is the Act under which, if my memory serves me right, Mugabe himself was jailed by the Smith mob, who denied him permission to go and bury his child, when that baby died while Mugabe was incarcerated under the Act!

Now, governments do tend to copy their predecessors (for convenience!) But certainly, a man like Mugabe, who has led one of the black world’s most heroic struggles, ought to have cultivated enough sensitivity by now to realise that he has a special place in history, and ought to guard this jealously by not allowing himself to behave in the tawdry, knee-jerk manner of the tuppence-ha’penny clingers-on to power that we in Africa are so sick of.

History aside, it is not even in the enlightened self-interest of Mugabe to seek to punish messengers whose only offence would have been to expose something sinister in his Government upon which they had stumbled. The question Mugabe should currently ask himself is this: why is the Zimbabwe army so indignant merely because it has been reported that some of its officers had been arrested for plotting a coup, that it has taken the law into its own hands and arrested and tortured journalists?

Who in the Government sanctioned that ultra vires action of the army and what was his motive? Does he want to bring discredit on to Mugabe’s head, especially at the international level, and if so, why? If he did not envisage, nay anticipate, the fallout that has occurred, is he fit to occupy the position that enables him to exercise so much power?

Let me tell Mugabe that ministries of defence are veritable vipers’ nests, and he should know because he used to be a teacher in Ghana at a time when President Kwame Nkrumah was getting to grips with the exercise of power. When Nkrumah was overthrown by his army in 1966, Kofi Baako, who had been with Nkrumah in the struggle from day one, and who was, on the surface, one of Nkrumah’s most vociferous "loyalists", told the press that as minister of civil defence, he had been planning his “own coup” against Nkrumah before the Ghana army struck! Kofi Baako? Incredible. Yet he said it.

Another minister, Kwaku Boateng, former minister of the interior and then, information, claimed that he and his colleagues had been reduced to “gaping sycophants” within the Cabinet, allowing Nkrumah to have his way. Now, the language of these two fanatical “Nkrumahists” was interesting in a subconscious sort of way: one used “coup”, the other said “sycophants”. And these are people both of whom would have been making politically sensitive proposals to Nkrumah on a daily basis! Did they help to make him more unpopular?

As for the army itself, I hope Mugabe is not deceived about its loyalty just because its leadership contains some of his former guerrilla colleagues. Who killed Chitepo? Who killed Tongogara? Only the ZANU/PF leadership can say. And it's as mute as a door-nail.

Well if Comrade Mugabe thinks the army shares the pan-Africanism which probably lies behind his expensive Congo adventure (for instance) he is even more wrong. Armies are largely interested in their stomachs, not what deals are in the head of their President. Mugabe must therefore lean on the Congo's Laurent Kabila to settle with his own political enemies so that Mugabe can withdraw his troops from the Congo.

(By the way, one of the reasons given by the Ghanaian soldiers as justification for their coup against Nkrumah in 1966 was that he was planning to send Ghanaian troops to Rhodesia to fight Ian Smith when he knew that the country didn’t have the resources to do that successfully!)

As for Mugabe’s tussle with the Zimbabwe judges, again he must look for the disease, not the symptoms. What could have provoked the judges to take the extraordinary action of publicly urging their president to distance himself from the army’s arbitrary actions?

The president and his cohorts might think the judges went public because they are “reactionary”. But if an influential element in the administration has detected that the army is blurring the lines of the separation of powers, and is moving in on the political processes of the nation, it's in the Government's enlightened interest to take the judiciary seriously.

Maybe the Zimbabwe army has been testing the waters, eh, Comrade Mugabe? Trust in the people, not in the army. And you can only trust the people if you respect the rights of all the people – including even those so-called “detestable” journalists.


Columnist: Cameron Duodo