Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s dictator and lifelong communist, died on Sept. 6, 2019, at the age of 95. In a country where the average life expectancy was only 44 years (according to a 2006 census), he outlived most of his countrymen.
However, his protracted and long life was constructed upon inflicting enormous and unimaginable suffering upon his people and country. For the rest of us, his incumbency should serve as a constant warning about why we should not fall for the next charismatic socialist who heedlessly promises everything.
Mugabe’s Life Before His Dictatorship
Mugabe was born into poverty. Abandoned by his father at age 10, he attended a Jesuit missionary school and eventually graduated from the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, the same university Nelson Mandela attended.
While Mugabe was receiving educator training in Ghana in the 1950s, he joined one of Africa’s nationalist movements, calling for the establishment of an independent country led by the black majority in his homeland, which at the time was still a British colony. The emergence of these nationalist movements coincided with the Cold War. The Soviet Union and Communist China expanded their influence in Africa, hoping to turn former colonies into client states.
Mugabe was imprisoned for a decade due to his anti-government political activities, and while in prison, he was elected as the president of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). During his long imprisonment, Mugabe thoroughly studied Marxist-Leninist ideology. He became a firm believer that only socialism could save his homeland, and that only his ZANU could lead the people’s revolution and bring true socialism to Zimbabwe. Therefore, ZANU must “always remain in power” and remain the only power.
Mugabe also came to see private property owners, such as the white farmers, as a threat to the socialist paradise he wanted to build. Upon his release, Mugabe led the ZANU guerrillas to fight against the white minority rule from Mozambique. Somehow, between prison and guerrilla warfare, he managed to obtain seven college degrees and was commended as an intellectual freedom fighter.
In 1979, the British government broke a Lancaster peace deal that officially ended the white minority rule and the civil war in Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwe held its first democratic election in 1980. Mugabe became the first black prime minister of Zimbabwe with an “overwhelming” victory. The West accepted Mugabe’s legitimacy, while perversely ignoring the widely reported voter fraud and voter intimation that occurred.
Mugabe Was Certainly a Charismatic Politician
Initially upon his election, Mugabe put on a good show. He promised the white minority in the country reconciliation and declared, “If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you.” His first cabinet included a former political foe and two white men. He promised his countrymen would never see violence and poverty again.
In his early years, he built schools and clinics that improved blacks’ literacy rate and health. For a while, his oratory about peace and justice had many in the West fooled. Everyone thought he was another Mandela.
Mugabe was hailed as a liberator, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and even nominated with the U.K.’s Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1981. Compared to other African nations, Mugabe’s star power helped attract numerous foreign resources and aid to his country.
Underneath Mugabe’s caring, freedom-loving facade, however, was a cruel, power-hungry, and murderous despot. Just two years into his rule, he dismissed his political opponent from the government and sent an army of former ZANU guerrillas trained by North Korea to the heartland where rival tribes resided, killing as many as 20,000 civilians, and arresting, torturing, and raping many more.
His brutal act forced his political foe to surrender, turning Zimbabwe into a one-party state. He proceeded to change the constitution to make himself president in 1987. He famously said, “Zimbabwe is mine,” and “only God who appointed me will remove me.”
Through violent oppression, voter fraud, and voter intimidation, Mugabe made sure he was the only head of state in Zimbabwe after every election. He ended up ruling Zimbabwe for the next 37 years, until a military coup forced his resignation in 2017.
During his long reign, some compared Mugabe to Adolf Hitler, a comparison he accepted with pride, saying, “I am still the Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective, justice for his own people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people. If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold.”
As a self-proclaimed communist and socialist, Mugabe installed a socialist experiment in Zimbabwe. His most notorious economic policy was “land reform.” Mugabe’s government, in the name of racial justice and to right historical wrongs, insisted that black Zimbabweans could only obtain equal share of land through a “land reform.”
So his government passed laws allowing landless black Zimbabweans to expropriate land from white farmers without compensation, and to occupy commercial farmland. The law stipulated that Great Britain should pay reparations for the land taken from the African people during its colonial rule. Women and rival tribes who backed Mugabe’s political opponents weren’t allowed to benefit from the “land reform.”
Government-backed ZANU militias were at the forefront to enforce the “land reform” with violence because Mugabe told them, “Our party must continue to strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy.” The Human Rights Watch documented the widespread human rights violations these militias carried out.
Socialism Tanked Zimbabwe’s Economy
Besides the human cost, the economic impact of the “land reform” was disastrous. Before “land reform,” Zimbabwe was nicknamed the “breadbasket” of Africa. Agriculture products were 40 percent of the country’s exports, and the agriculture industry was the country’s largest employer.
Then “land reform” forced experienced white farmers to run away, leaving much land unattended. Inexperienced new land owners didn’t know how to grow crops. Agriculture production rapidly declined. Instead of exporting produces, Zimbabweans couldn’t feed themselves. Now, more than 60 percent of them rely on foreign food aid for basic survival.
The rest of the economy fell along with the agriculture industry: Banks closed, factories shut down, and the unemployment rate skyrocketed. Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product per capita dropped from $1,105 in 1980 (the beginning of Mugabe’s reign) to $397 in 2007. Average life expectancy dropped from 60 years in 1980 to 46 in 2007, the lowest in the world.
The Mugabe government responded to its economic woes by printing money. Its inflation rate reached 500 billion percent. Shortage of food, water, and electricity were common. Zimbabwe also experienced unprecedented health crises. About 3 million Zimbabweans (roughly a quarter of the population) fled the country. Of course, Mugabe blamed the West, the same West that has been sending millions of dollars in aid.
While his countrymen lived impoverished and destitute, Mugabe enriched himself, his family, and his cronies. His personal wealth is estimated to have exceeded U.S.$1 billion, including a $5 million mansion in Hong Kong. His second wife, Grace Mugabe, is even known as “Gucci Grace” because of her impossible-to-satisfy appetite for expensive European luxuries.
Socialism Has Failed Everywhere It’s Been Tried
The misery Zimbaweans experienced isn’t new or unique. Anyone who has lived under Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, Kim’s North Korea, and Maduro’s Venezuela can tell you they shared similar life experiences. Mugabe wasn’t the only charismatic socialist who ruined a country and the lives of millions. Socialism has failed everywhere and every time.
Despite socialism’s terrible record, it seems it always finds a charismatic spokesperson, whether they are old and “wise” or young and cute, trying to convince the rest of us to give socialism another try and promising the outcome will be different this time because the wisest leaders in history have finally arrived and are in charge to take care of us.
Mugabe’s life should remind us not to be fooled by someone who promises to give us everything and to better our lives in every way. C.S. Lewis warned that “a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. … Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”
Mugabe certainly turned a once-prosperous country into a hell on Earth. Let’s not give any socialist in our country any chance to ruin our lives.