Former foreign correspondent for Britain’s ITN network, who later represented the United Nations secretary-general in Argentina.
As we witness the downfall of Robert Mugabe, it is important perhaps to remember that he came to power not just with the blessing of Britain and the international community, but also with their connivance, the collective turning of a blind eye that changed everything for him and his country.
You see, Mugabe was once ‘our man,’ or to paraphrase a late US President regarding the Latin American sphere, ‘our son of a bitch.’
However much today we distance ourselves from the despot, however much we rush to say good riddance, there are such lessons in the way Britain sought an end to its Empire in Africa as quickly and as painlessly as possible, so granting Mugabe a sense of impunity and unchallenged power that helped to turn him into a tyrant.
Some 36 years ago I co-authored the first biography of Robert Mugabe, and salutary today to read the marketing campaign that went with the book, Mugabe: the man behind the myth. “He represents the long sought-after reconciliation of a nation – and a continent – that has been many years in the making … the man who is the most influential and articulate of Africa’s statesmen, the black leader who holds the key to the future of Southern Africa.”
Implausible today, but back then Mugabe was a political star, a media darling. That Cold War rarity: welcome in the White House, and Downing Street, and the Kremlin. I seem to remember Lord Carrington, then-British foreign secretary, telling journalists like me to “stay close to Mugabe. He’s the future of Africa.”
Those who spent serious time with Robert (I confess, we were on first-name terms back then) knew there was another, decidedly ruthless, tyrannical side to him.
In private moments, at a flat he shared with his first wife Sally in Bayswater during the Lancaster House peace talks in 1979, he would let down his guard and reveal how his military muscle on theground would decide the election that consecrated the peace process.
He added, on more than one occasion, that death sentences awaited those who did not follow orders. And so his fighters did deliver. In the election campaign that brought him to power in a landslide, they tortured, they maimed, they crippled, and they killed. One favourite tactic was to parade an opposition candidate in front of the town or village, and choke him with burning coals. But did the British government, guarantors of the peace, challenge Mugabe? Did the British Army, on the ground in some numbers, intervene? Did anyone in the international community, which sent observers aplenty, stare down Zanu-PF?
Today we would like to believe our information age would force us to respond. Back then the last governor of Rhodesia, Lord Nicholas Soames, put it this way: “We may have to pull a jockey or two, but all the horses in this race are going to get to the starting-line.” To my mind, that was the dawn of Mugabe’s absolute impunity. Everything that followed – the extermination of his opponents (courtesy of North Korean thugs), the destruction of Zimbabwe’s economy, the brutal crackdown on anyone questioning him, or lately his wife Grace – stemmed from his experience of confronting the British Empire, and turning it to his shamelessly naked advantage.
Until this week, that is. When his own army, for so long his powerbase, turned against him.
I last saw him at the United Nations in the 1990s, when he confirmed that I was still banned from his country because of that book. He wagged his finger at me, reminded me that we had both been educated by Jesuits, and said: “Don’t you remember our Jesuit teachers always told us: actions have consequences.” I wonder what he thinks of that line now. And I hope folks in First-World governments, instead of simply washing their hands of the despot, heed the lessons that accompany the national tragedy Mugabe inflicted on his people.