Mon, Apr 19, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Iron rule casts pall over Zimbabwe’s birthday

Three decades of bloodshed now lie behind a president who went from freedom fighter to tyrant

By David Smith  /  THE GUARDIAN , HARARE

Britain’s Prince Charles saluted as the band played God Save the Queen. Thousands at the Rufaro soccer stadium in Salisbury, Rhodesia cheered when the Union flag was lowered on one pole and the red, green, black and gold flag of Zimbabwe raised on another.

Legend has it that the first official words spoken in the new nation were: “Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers.”

The Jamaican reggae star performed a song, Zimbabwe, watched by the new prime minister, Robert Mugabe. A power cut plunged the celebrations into darkness and tear gas was used to subdue panic in the crowd. But no one, that day, wanted to read the runes.

Few could have guessed that last weekend, when the country marked 30 years of independence, it would also be forced to salute 30 years of Mugabe’s iron rule. Nor could they have imagined they would be asking how this eloquent freedom fighter, once lauded by the West and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, turned into one of Africa’s most reviled tyrants.

Today there are many Zimbabweans who believe that, far from being a good man corrupted by power, Mugabe’s ruthless streak was forged long ago in the bitter liberation struggle, during which he spent 10 years in jail. Reflecting on three decades of bloodshed, economic ruin and erosion of civil liberties, they see little to celebrate this weekend in the eclipse of what was once Africa’s greatest hope.

On April 18, 1980, the renegade colony of Rhodesia gave way to the new Zimbabwe, ending a seven-year war that left 27,000 dead. Mugabe, a guerrilla fighter hated by Ian Smith’s white-­minority regime, announced a policy of reconciliation and invited whites to help rebuild the country.

Among those present that day was Simba Makoni, who served in Mugabe’s first government.

“What struck me was the joviality of the people,” he told this reporter during a rare interview in Harare. “We’d just come out of a very hard war situation. There was still a lot of tension. The blacks were celebrating, the whites were obviously in mourning a little. So it was quite a mixture of feelings, but I think the dominant sentiment was one of joviality, excitement, hope and high expectations.”

Mugabe is said to have few friends. Makoni, one of his few intellectual equals, may have come as close as anyone. He toured Europe with Mugabe in the late 1970s, culminating in the peace talks at Lancaster House in London.

“I clearly regarded him as a hero, someone to look up to,” Makoni, 60, recalled. “I had a sense of what kind of a character he was. Definitely the hero, definitely the people’s leader, very committed and at that time genuine about the welfare of the people. ‘We must do the wishes of the people.’”

“Some of us regarded him even in the first nine, 12 months of independence as being too democratic, allowing people too much sway and too much discussion,” he added. “We were in a hurry to rectify the wrongs and he wanted debate, he wanted exhaustion of issues. Quite a different character from the Mugabe of today, regrettably.”

Makoni was not alone in his admiration for the former guerrilla leader, whose men were accused of atrocities during the war against Rhodesia. Britain, the former colonial power, wanted Mugabe to succeed and seemed prepared to turn a blind eye to his failings. Dumiso Dabengwa fought for the armed liberation movement Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo, which competed and sometimes clashed with Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).

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