Dear Africa: To my President’s admirers

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Last weekend, my president, Robert Mugabe, delivered a rousing speech at the close of the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa. Those who heard it say he was in his element; that he spoke well and received loud applause from those in attendance, his peers who preside over other African countries. I did not listen to his speech and I only got snippets from Twitter. I did not bother to listen because after 36 years in power, I have heard it all from him before. There is nothing new that he is going to say that we in Zimbabwe have not heard before. It is like what they say of old broken records.

by Alex Magaisa

Look, my president is an educated man.

He has many degrees to his name – authentic degrees, and I have to mention this because my country has gained notoriety in recent years for politicians who acquire cheap degrees from institutions of dubious repute. Mugabe’s are real. He earned them in jail, when he was detained by the colonial regime. Back in the village, when speaking of a man like him, villagers would say ‘he ate books’.

But he is also privileged with the gift of eloquence. He is an orator and when I was a kid, I used to admire his skills on the podium. I used to collect his speeches whenever they were published. The language and the delivery were perfect. But most importantly − he spoke sense. As a young boy in the 80s and early 90s, most of his speeches made sense to me.

At A’level, when I wrote my General Paper essay on a person who had inspired me, I chose President Mugabe. I admired him. Years later, as I grew up, I read more and began to learn more about my then hero. Yes, he had done some great things, but there was also an ugly side that had been concealed. It broke my heart reading what had happened to innocent people – including women and children – in Matabeleland and the Midlands during the 1980s, a dark chapter in Zimbabwe now known universally as Gukurahundi. He himself later acknowledged it as “a moment of madness”.

But I understand why some of you applaud him and regard him as an icon. He speaks the language of Africa. He is bold in his defence of a continent that is so often left on the margins in world affairs. He ventures into territory that few, if any, African leaders dare to approach. He is old school, a reminder of the original crop of African fathers who led the continent from the yokels of colonialism. He speaks his mind. He has the gift for stating things that many African leaders would want to say but are silenced by circumstances from saying. Some of you wish your presidents were as bold and brave. But that is probably because you do not have to live with the costs of his conduct. We, as Zimbabweans, do.

What is more, my president and those around him do not have to live with those consequences either because they are insulated by the comforts of office or they have alternatives. You see, if they cannot access superior medical facilities in Western countries, they can always go to the Far East. My president favours Singapore.

Members of his inner circle take their long vacations in the splendour and luxury of Dubai, never mind that millions at home might be facing starvation on account of drought and poor government planning. Never mind too that we have great tourist facilities and our tourism if crying out for patronage. Our leaders prefer overseas. Not Victoria Falls. Not Kariba. No, not Nyanga, even though they are beautiful. Their money is spent elsewhere.

At one point, we had a superior education system – world-class, I would hazard to add – but it is now a shadow of its former self. Zanu PF politicians can not even trust it for their own children, so they send them to universities in South Africa or overseas. But I guess this is not unusual, because your presidents and ministers and public officials probably do the same, and perhaps worse. We might call it the curse of Africa, where those who oversee public services have no confidence in the public goods they deliver to everyone else.
So when I hear our presidents – yours and mine — talk about “African solutions to African problems” I just laugh. I laugh because they do not even believe that the African countries they lead and claim to love so much have solutions to their own needs and pleasures.
I have often come across Africans who revere my President and, like I said, I understand why.

They are in awe of his speeches, just as I was when I was a kid and knew no better. What they see as bravery, many Zimbabweans I know count as recklessness. Like I said, the difference is the admiring Africans do not have to live with the consequences of Mugabe’s rule but Zimbabweans do and they are not amused.

This is why a friend said yesterday on Twitter: “They can have him if they want, for good. We have had him for 35 years!” “On one condition,” I added. “As long as they know we operate a ‘strictly no returns policy’!” Another chap chipped in: “He can stay there in Addis, we will send his clothes and pocket money!”

All in jest, of course, because this is how we Zimbabweans cope with our serious problems. We find humour in it and we laugh. It helps us carry the burden. But underlying all that humour is a serious point about the sheer frustration that pervades the land. We, including some of those who sympathise with him, know that he has been there for too long now and that nothing new will emerge from his leadership to change our fortunes. We are all in waiting mode.

So the state weekly, The Sunday Mail, reports that President Mugabe was at his “imperious and peerless best” giving the United Nations a big telling off for marginalising Africa and for resisting reform to the Security Council. He spoke on behalf of Palestine, and very strongly about African identity and integrity. He spoke about humanity, telling the UN Secretary-General to remind the Western powers that ‘we are also humans and not ghosts’.

All good and, for the most part, sensible because the world is skewed right now. He touches on the subjects, such as black identity and self-worth, that resonate with many on the continent and that makes him a hero in your eyes; a fearless man who stands by his people and treads where others would never dare.

But then he threatens to leave the UN. This might have surprised you, but not us. We in Zimbabwe are very familiar with this approach from our President. Back in the village, they would say of a man like him ‘ane chiramwa’ – a person who is easily irritable and disengages and withdraws when he does not get his way. It is something that goes deep in the Mugabe’s make-up. One of his relatives, James Chikerema, once gave us a revealing anecdote into the man’s character.

He said when they were little boys herding cattle in their village, the young Robert would drive his father’s cattle away from the village herd if he was frustrated and did not get his way. Later in life, when Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth, Mugabe decided to walk away for good. In 2013, just before the elections, when confronted with Sadc demands for electoral reforms before elections, Mugabe’s response was to threaten to leave the regional organisation.

So, no: we are not surprised that he came up with this threat, that African countries would leave the UN if they did not get their way.
Never mind that the UN agencies – Unicef, Unesco, UNDP and others – have played a critical role in recent years by cushioning the suffering poor in his own country while those in the top echelons enjoy a life of luxury. In other countries, leaders don’t just make unilateral decisions to leave international organisations. They ask the people, through a referendum, whether they want their country to stay or leave an organisation of importance. But not with my President. If he is not happy, he leaves − never mind what the people he governs think.

There’s some irony too in his demands for reforms and the threat to leave the UN. Back in Zimbabwe, opposition parties and civil society have been calling for political reforms for years, but my President is not moved. He seems to think they are nuisance and not worthy of attention. He does not realise that the pleas he is making to the UN, is really no different from the pleas his compatriots at home are making about electoral reforms, security sector reforms, etc. He wants reform of the UN Security Council and rightly so, but he is not interested in electoral and security sector reforms in his own country.

It would be nice, if his words corresponded with reality in his own backyard. Trouble is the Mugabe who struts on the international stage is rather different from the Mugabe at home. Here is a brief account of what has been happening in Harare recently, under his watch:

Last week, the authorities drove bulldozers into properties in a residential location. Huge, beautiful houses, built over months and perhaps years, were razed to the ground in minutes. These were not shacks in a slum, but proper brick and mortar properties under tile.

The authorities said the houses were illegal, although no proper investigations were done to establish how exactly those people ended up investing their hard-earned cash (and it’s truly hard-earned in Zimbabwe). Now, after the destruction, it is emerging that these people were led to believe that they were entitled to build their homes. To be sure, a house is not built in a day. It takes months, sometimes years, to complete the kind of properties that were callously brought down last week.

It takes many processes and permissions to get services like water and electricity into a home. The people had all or most of these things. They paid for them. The local authority and government would have known what was going on and could have stopped it if it was illegal. But they did not.

Sometime last year, President Mugabe complained about the properties. He did not fancy them and he made it known to his ministers. They were unsightly and embarrassing when visitors came because they were on the road to the airport, the President said. A couple of months later, the bulldozers arrived and the houses were demolished. No court orders, as required by law. The demolition teams just came in and razed them. It is the middle of summer and it is raining. Women and children have been left exposed. But who cares? It is like a scene from NoViolet Bulawayo’s multiple award-winning novel ‘We Need New Names’, except that these are not shacks. It is a case where it might be said, in the words of Oscar Wilde, that life imitates art.

All this happened shortly before President Mugabe returned from his lavish holiday in Dubai. When he returned, he never said a word about the callous demolitions. Then he left for Addis Ababa to hand over the baton as his tenure as AU Chair came to an end, itself a rare event in his long career.

There, he gave a rousing speech and they cheered him on and gave him standing ovations as he pontificated about humanity and justice in the world; as he challenged the skewed international system which favours the big boys and crushes the small man. The irony, given events back home, might have escaped him.

They cheered but they would not have known about the women and children in Harare who are sleeping in the open, exposed to the elements, because his government decided, midsummer, that their homes were an eyesore; that they were illegal, and needed to be destroyed.
The same man who is lecturing the world about the humanity and dignity of the African has no qualms about his own government destroying homes and stripping the inhabitants, ordinary Africans, of their dignity and livelihoods. They do this in the name of law and order, in the name of rules, without compassion and without the application of common sense.
This aspect escapes our government.

The arrogance and hypocrisy is contagious. Mugabe’s local government minister, under whose charge the demolitions took place, tweeted an invitation to ‘patriots’ to come to the airport in their numbers to welcome home the ‘iconic leader’ and ‘hero’.

Those were his words. He wanted people to give Mugabe a hero’s welcome back from his trip to Addis Ababa. Never mind that there are women and children who no longer have a home, because the government led by this ‘icon’ and ‘hero’ decided that their houses should be demolished in the wet season.

When he drives to his big home on the other side of town, in his long motorcade, the road passes through the area where these homes once stood. From the tinted windows of his limousine, he might take notice of their absence. He might even nod in agreement, recognising that the ministers acted on his disapproval.

I do not know how they all sleep at night, but I guess they have big houses with many bedrooms. Big, big bedrooms and big, comfortable beds, and they never have to worry about a thing. They will probably bask in the glory of the Addis speech and say their leader showed their opponents once again.

Some Africans will say once more that we are lucky to have such a great leader. But try asking the men, women and children who, as you read this, are sleeping in the open − because the Zimbabwean government deliberately wrecked.

Magaisa is a lawyer and Senior lecturer at Kent University in the UK.This was first published at