How an autocratic strain of pan-Africanism of the early 1960s sheds light on Mugabe’s seemingly contradictory roles as freedom fighting anti-colonial nationalist, followed by a dictatorial, repressive presidency.
The recent spate of obituaries on the late Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe have wrestled with efforts to balance the apparent discrepancy between his contributions to the country’s liberation struggle versus his betrayal of human rights and justice while head of Zimbabwe for nearly four decades. However, a closer inspection of Mugabe’s early political record indicates that this chasm is not nearly so paradoxical as the surface view suggests. While revelries of Mugabe’s pan-Africanism, as embodied in a tweet by Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa announcing his predecessor’s death, are largely responsible for the spate of interest in the 95-year-old’s passing, Mugabe’s commitment to the ideology was a double-edged sword.
Pan-Africanism helped ignite Zimbabwe’s independence struggle in the early 1960s, but it also injected a strain of intolerant authoritarianism into the liberation movement of which Mugabe played a leading role from mid-1960. A number of prominent scholars of pan-African governance such as Ali Mazrui, Thandika Mkandawire, and Claude Ake have pointed to the consolidation of authoritarian influences across Africa at this time as pan-African movements became governments and struggled to adjust to new realities.
Mugabe’s quest for unchallenged power as Zimbabwe’s leader following independence in 1980 was profoundly shaped by pan-Africanism’s abhorrence of division and disunity and the ideology’s emphasis on unquestioned unity as the basis of political power in early post-colonial Africa
In late May 1960, Mugabe returned home on leave from his teaching position in Ghana, then the mecca of pan-Africanism. Ghana was led by Kwame Nkrumah, an icon of post-colonial Africa, but a leader swiftly implementing autocratic governance at home. Abroad, Nkrumah believed that multiple anti-colonial liberation movements operating in one territory caused “despondency.” In early July, the world’s attention turned towards one of the most fraught cases of decolonization, in the former Belgian Congo. In the same month, Mugabe formally joined the nationalist struggle, joining the National Democratic Party (NDP) to oppose white settler rule in the then Southern Rhodesia.
By early 1961, the Congo’s Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was dead due to the intrigue of neocolonial forces and the country was temporarily partitioned. Divisions in Africa escalated with the formation of the Casablanca and Monrovia Groups, which clashed over divergent visions of Africa’s development trajectory. A spirit of contentious pan-Africanism was the background to Mugabe’s formative political years. The lengthy guerrilla war that culminated in Zimbabwe’s negotiated independence only served to further bolster Mugabe’s claim of holding a “degree in violence.”
Mugabe’s first degree in violence
Domestically, Mugabe’s penchant for an intolerant rejection of opposition was clear from as early as 1961, when Zimbabwe’s liberation movement faced its first significant rupture. In June of that year, the NDP faced a challenge to its political primacy from fellow nationalist movement the Zimbabwe National Party. As the NDP’s Publicity Secretary, Mugabe was on the frontline of efforts to thwart the incipient challenge.
An early indication of Mugabe’s inability to accept opposition was evinced in an NDP press release, authored by Mugabe, which rejected the formation of the ZNP and noted that the people “will not entertain toy parties at the expense of National unity.” The statement was no idle comment. Just days earlier, the ZNP leadership was forced to abandon its own launch event when its co-founders were violently assaulted by NDP partisans.
The saga with the ZNP also saw Mugabe deploy the political rhetoric on sovereignty and legitimate representation that featured so prominently in his discourse after launching fast-track land reform. The ZNP leader, Patrick Matimba, had resided in Europe and had a Dutch spouse. Mugabe exploited this background, noting in another press release that “the Africans of this country will never tolerate a situation in which the affairs of their country will be directed by some obscure and remote figure stationed in Amsterdam. We shall not allow this country to be a little province of Holland.”
Competition with the ZNP was strongly manifest in the pan-African sphere. In a major diplomatic coup, the new party secured an invitation to a conference of African nationalist leaders convened by Nkrumah in Ghana. Mugabe was one of the NDP’s representatives—prior to his departure for Ghana he announced that there was no room for both parties to be represented: “either the ZNP delegation [is in] and we are out or we are in and they are out. There is no question of the two groups being in at the same time.”
Both groups were ultimately recognized at the conference, but in his political speeches back home, Mugabe stressed that the ZNP had been marginalized and that the conference had resolved that colonies should not have multiple independence movements.
Mugabe’s hard-line position came at a cost. His house in the Salisbury (today’s Harare) suburb of Highfield was stoned on several occasions (with his family inside) by individuals allegedly representing the ZNP. He was left a threatening letter by a “General Hokoyo,” the perpetrator, who claimed that the attacks on the ZNP launch had been instigated by Mugabe.
However, Mugabe remained uncompromising. When the ZNP suffered an internal split in September 1962, Mugabe continued to attack new challengers, calling the newly formed Pan-African Socialist Union a grouping of “political rejects and undesirables.”
When Mugabe and others broke away themselves the following year to form the Zimbabwe African National Union, they became the object of the scorn they had heaped on the ZNP. Mugabe, from a brief exile in Dar-es-Salaam, read helplessly in the newspapers of an account of his house being stoned yet again.
A long shadow over postcolonial Zimbabwe
Nearly two decades of struggle remained before Zimbabwe attained independence under Mugabe’s rule. Amidst the calls for human rights and justice that animated the movement against minority rule, a more sinister strand of intolerance and a search for power at all costs became thoroughly embedded. As the struggle turned toward increasingly violent means, the Zimbabwean nationalist movement relied on ever more oppressive measures. A number of Mugabe’s allies were side-lined or died under mysterious circumstances. Mugabe became increasingly committed to the idea of a military victory to ensure his paramountcy.
In the initial stage of his political career, when the nationalist movement still operated openly before the rise of Ian Smith and the Rhodesian Front, Mugabe participated in a movement which briefly enjoyed unity and had overwhelming support, but which wielded little power to achieve its goals. Pan-Africanism, the most prominent political ideology of the era, indicated that the maintenance of this absolute unity was an essential prerequisite to attaining and holding power.
From 1961 to 1963, Mugabe’s role transformed from enforcing unity in the struggle to leading a faction that decisively ended unity. This contradictory experience and questionable role exerted an indelible impact on Mugabe’s political behavior. Zimbabwe, now under the leadership of Emmerson Mnangagwa, one of Mugabe’s top strongmen, continues to struggle to emerge from the formative shadow of pan-Africanism’s emphasis on unity and power that captured and consumed Mugabe’s political thought.