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From the archives: Mugabe’s rise to power

Mr Lovemore Mukeyani

BY: Lovemore Mukeyani

A strange sort of anniversary, but an anniversary nonetheless: it is 31 years, to the day, since Robert Mugabe took power in Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as it was still called. In which case, here is The Spectator’s leading article from the time. It is, for the large part, a good demonstration of the benefits conferred by hindsight. But its caginess about Mugabe is apparent in such observations as, “It is up to Mr Mugabe whether he leads his country into yet another black tyranny, corrupt and inefficient, or whether he builds on what has already been built.” Mugabe, it seems, made
his mind up on that one some time ago.

Off the the Rhodesian hook, The Spectator, 8 March 1980

Mr Mugabe’s victory in the Rhodesian elections is overwhelming. He has utterly overwhelmed Bishop Muzorewa; Mr Joshua Nkomo’s wing of the Patriotic Front is now seen to be very much a minority, Matabele faction lacking any
broad appeal; and the other African groupings are routed. The Rhodesian electorate has voted decisively, and, despite all the intimidation, has produced a democratic result. Although many had expected Mr Mugabe to emerge as the leader of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia’s government, none had reckoned on him winning a clear and quite unequivocal outright victory. His triumph is beyond question and cavil.

Much can and will be said to the effect that Mugabe’s triumph is the best of all possible results. Had no clear victor emerged and had, in the consequent politicking, a coalition government been formed which excluded Mugabe, in all likelihood the civil war would have erupted again. Indeed any muddled and confused electoral result could have restarted the fighting and butchery. The plight of the Commonwealth troops would have been perilous.

Ian Smith Signing the UDI in 1965

Hasty evacuation and precipitate departure might well have become Britain’s lot. Lord Soames would have been on a hiding to nothing in trying to exercise gubernatorial authority and viceregal judgment. The Mugabe triumph should remove the risk of civil war. It should ensure the safety of visiting troops. There will be no undignified British scuttle nor any need to test Lord Soames’s political skill. For all this we in Britain, along with the Rhodesians of every colour, tribe and political persuasion, many be profoundly thankful. We look like getting ourselves off the Rhodesian hook at last, and pretty painlessly at that.

But at what price? This we do not know and cannot yet know. All we know is that it is not we in Britain who will pay, but the Rhodesians. Their future is in Mr Mugabe’s hands and none can say what he will do with it. Time will tell, probably soon enough. He is a strong man and an intelligent one; some say his professed Marxism is only skin-deep, others see him as Moscow’s man; by all he is accounted personally uncorrupt. He could, if he chose, lead Zimbabwe-Rhodesia into swift prosperity. It is potentially rich and powerful, in black African terms. Mr Mugabe has often enough declared that he wants the white Rhodesians to stay. This they will do, if he uses his great power well. But should he use his power foolishly, then he could as easily lead Zimbabwe-Rhodesia into dereliction. Its economy could as readily collapse as prosper. It is up to Mr Mugabe whether he leads his country into yet another black tyranny, corrupt and inefficient, or whether he builds on what has already been built. Despite the force of his arms, he has come to power democratically and as the result of political process. If he keeps himself in power without the force of arms and rules democratically, as sometimes he has suggested he proposes to do, then all might yet be well in the land first administered by Rhodes.

Mugabe’s triumph is Carrington’s defeat. Despite the manifest convenience of an overwhelming electoral result, the upshot is what Lord Carrington has been seeking to avoid. He would never have been able to persuade Mrs Thatcher away from her inclination to recognise the Muzorewa regime and to lift sanctions, if he had said to her, ‘At the end of the day, we will hand Robert Mugabe Rhodesia on a plate.’ Yet this is what he has done, after Mrs Thatcher’s diplomatic ‘triumph’ at Lusaka and his own ‘triumph’ at Lancaster House. Britain’s brief return to the exercise of theoretical sovereignty in Salisbury has allowed us to preside over the democratic election of a Marxist whose power hitherto was securely based upon arms supplied by Moscow and by guerilla troops trained and based in Mozambique.

If Lord Carrington’s sole purpose was to get Britain off the hook, then he may claim some success. But Britain could have got itself off the hook at any time since UDI, by the simple and very familiar technique of according de jure recognition to Smith’s de facto regime. Successive British governments declined to do this partly to punish Smith and partly to ingratiate ourselves with black African states. Eventually, Britain destroyed Smith. It then destroyed Bishop Muzorewa.

 Now, at last, the sorry story ends with Lord Soames inviting Mr Mugabe to govern Rhodesia. The man Britain least wanted is victor; we have settled upon him the future of Rhodesia in order to get ourselves off the hook. Now at last we can wash our hands of Rhodesia. They are pretty dirty hands. We wish Zimbabwe-Rhodesians good fortune and Mr
Mugabe good judgment: they will need them if their country is to prosper.

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