Robert Mugabe obituary: The father of a nation who became the embarrassing uncle

The first time I met Robert Mugabe, I couldn’t quite decide whether he cut a dignified or pathetic figure.

There was a great effort to ‘keep up appearances’ – a quality of the hated British he would - with no little irony - appreciate.

Physically feeble, and barely able to walk, this encounter was a few months after he’d been dumped out of a job he once claimed for life.

The measured way with words still just about survived the assault of age.

And he wore, as so often, a finely tailored suit. But its style, like its owner, belonged to a past era.

  • Meeting Mugabe for the first time was 'surreal'

Mugabe was the Father of a Nation who ended up more like an embarrassing great uncle – secreted away at his infamous Blue Roof mansion compound on the outskirts of Harare.

During our interview, he railed against the ‘’military coup’’ that had forced him from power, complained of threats to his family’s well-being.

But then as he meandered through a long history of colonial sins against his country, his wife, Grace, stepped in to shut him up.

It is perhaps his greatest misfortune – with tragic repercussions for the nation he founded – that he had been allowed to hang on in office for so long.

Robert Mugabe’s death is the full stop that ends an African era of soaring dreams and dashed hopes.

Despite a dislike for the British, Mugabe had affection for the Royal family. Credit: PA

He was, until November 2018, the last member of that original generation of ‘Big Men’, dedicated to the liberation of their continent from colonial rule, still in office.

Yet like so many of his contemporaries whose promises turned sour, who elevated the maintenance of power above all other priorities, and who enriched themselves while their nations ran to ruin, Mugabe will be remembered as much as an oppressor as a liberator.

He was a suitably contradictory character; a staunch Roman Catholic who sent many thousands to their deaths, a man who was vehemently anti-British and yet held a genuine affection for the Royal Family.

Perhaps the contradictions should not surprise. He was after all every inch the product of British-ruled Africa.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born at a Jesuit Mission north west of the city then known as Salisbury in what was Southern Rhodesia on the 21st February 1924.

Abandoned by his father, and with both his older brothers dying while he was still young, Mugabe was brought up under the protective wing of an Irish priest; a father figure in two senses.

Mugabe pictured in 1980. Credit: PA

Descriptions of his boyhood paint a portrait of a solitary, studious youth with few friends, comfortable instead in the company of the books of his school library. He was, they said, a clever lad.

He qualified as a teacher and it was during further studies that he met Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda, the future long-serving leaders of Tanzania and Zambia respectively.

He went on to teach in Ghana, where he was influenced by another of the new breed of ‘Big Men’, Kwama Nkrumah, Prime Minster of the newly independent nation.

Mugabe’s path to power was more protracted. He returned to South Rhodesia in 1960 to take up the struggle against an intransigent white minority government and was soon jailed.

He used his prison time to study, gaining degrees through correspondence courses in law and economics with the University of London.

But one episode indicates the scale of his sacrifice - and the enmities of the times. When Mugabe’s three-year-old son died from malaria in Ghana in 1966, Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith intervened personally to block his petition to attend the funeral.

After 10 years he was released and headed into exile to lead guerrilla forces in the fight for liberation.

Mugabe, left, with his wife, Grace. Credit: PA

It culminated in the 1979 Lancaster House agreement that heralded the end of white Rhodesia and the birth of majority ruled Zimbabwe.

The first elections set a template; amid accusations of rigging and skulduggery, Mugabe was declared the winner.

‘’You have inherited a jewel,’’ Tanzania’s president Julius Nyerere told him. ‘’Keep it that way.’’

But his new regime was soon implicated in a blood-letting to eclipse the evils of its predecessor.

  • John Ray discusses his memories of Mugabe

His North Korean trained Fifth Brigade moved against opponents in Matabeleland, tribal base of his great rival and then partner in awkward coalition, Joshua Nkomo. At least 20,000 are thought to have died.

The single-minded determination that helped create Zimbabwe begat a ruthlessness in government that is all too common a characteristic in so many of Africa’s post independence leaders.

Still, the early years of his rule were judged a success. Zimbabwe’s economy - based in large measure on commercial farming – rolled along. Mugabe was lauded in the west.

But an underlying contradiction would have to be resolved.

Mugabe created some controversial policies. Credit: PA

Here was a black nationalist and socialist leader presiding over a system of land ownership inherited from the colonial past where the big farms and most productive areas were controlled by a small minority of whites.

For two decades after independence there was a scheme to transfer land to black people; with the former owners compensated under a scheme funded by Britain.

It was ended by the Labour government of Tony Blair, leaving the stage set for violent confrontations as groups of ‘liberation war veterans’ seized white farms.

Those who refused to quit were assaulted; in some cases tortured and murdered.

“If Blair’s England was no longer willing to pay for the land, should we have just folded our hands and said, "Oh, Lord almighty, I pray in the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost?’’ he remembered in 2015.

“Goodness me, no! Blair, Blair, who was he? Just the prime minister of Britain. I’m president of Zimbabwe. So that’s why we say ‘OK, it’s your money, keep it. It’s our land, we will take it.’ Balance.”

He said the land reform was ‘’the best thing that could ever have happened to an African country.”

Mugabe, right, fell out with Tony Blair. Credit: PA

In reality, much of the land went to political cronies in return for their loyalty. The economy collapsed and the era of hyperinflation, of Zimbabwe’s impoverished paper-billionaires, of empty shop shelves began.

In the chaos, Mugabe suffered his first serious electoral set backs and in return used his war veterans, coupled with his by now total control of every arm of the state, to stay in power.

The following decade saw a period of relative economic stability give way to steep economic decline amid massive corruption and mismanagement.

While the nation went backwards, Mugabe, his mental and physical powers beginning to desert him, was still fighting rhetorical battles with the British and wider west whose sanctions he blamed for the economic disaster.

While others might have thought of retirement, Mugabe refused to quit despite failing health and fading mental powers.

‘’Only God who appointed me can remove me,’’ he said in 2008, at the violent climax of more elections tarnished by the organized intimidation of the opposition.

On that, and on so much else, he was to be proved wrong.