Lessons from an inevitable departure
By Richard Mammah
As had been anticipated, the fall of Robert Mugabe has finally happened and now it is time for the reflections and lessons.
As a growing child in Nigeria in the middle to closing years of the 1970s, I had taken an early interest in current affairs, and indeed the politics of the period. So I was basically aware of the struggle to free the last bastions of colonial rule in the continent and the emergence of Robert Mugabe as the President of the newly decolonised Zimbabwe.
Later at the university, I had more time as a young activist to more critically dissect the Southern African liberation struggle and even rose to be the local President of the Youth Solidarity on Southern Africa, YUSSAN.
And then at the turn of the millennium, I had a chance to visit that country to participate in what was then Africa’s most illustrious bookfair event, the Zimbabwe International Bookfair, ZIBF, and to witness the rot that had begun to creep into the promise of a great African pearl, food basket and development champion. Alas, there were hapless youths at street corners, and generally, you could feel it even as it was being whispered by distraught citizens in hushed tones: this country was clearly not going anywhere under Mugabe.
Indeed, it was my lot to meet Mugabe himself when he came on what a more regular exhibitor described as his ‘traditional visit to the fairgrounds.’ With a record haul of certificates and degrees to his name, you can understand his fascination with the world of books. But did he ‘live’ this fascination in his governance style?
My brief interaction with him that day confirmed – like he demonstrated once again in the eclectic resistance that he had put up in the past few days – that this was indeed one leader that carried his wits with him. ‘You are from Nigeria?’ he queried Chuma Nwokolo and I as we stood beside our travelling exhibit of 100 years of the Nigerian Book. ‘How’s my good friend, Obasanjo? Ah, Nigeria: Big country, big problems!’ I was going to respond and ask about the hapless young men on almost every street corner, but he had moved on.
Business concluded, it was time to go. On exiting the Harare International Airport, I was to encounter one final piece of negative symbolism: no one was willing to exchange the rest of my Zimbabwean dollars that I had left with me into any other currency!
The only option I had then was to patronise the duty-free shops at the airport. But I had attempted that upon my arrival and the quality of suits and other accessories on display resonated with the larger gloom in the nation. I was compelled to return to Nigeria with them. When my friend, Beautiful Nubia was headed for that same fair in the following year, I off-loaded them on him. ‘For whatever it is worth,’ I told him matter-of-factly. Upon his return all he could say was ‘you really knew what you were doing, didn’t you?’ I did, hence the tongue-in-cheek ‘handover note!’
And a few years later, the previously most impressive bookfair on the continent was a definite shadow of itself. It never recovered.
For me then, the exit of Mugabe this Tuesday was a conclusion I had reached seventeen years ago. It was only a matter of when.
The Zimbabwe crisis is indeed a local affair as much as it is a lesson for all of the continent. His party, the ZANU-PF is culpable, just like the army that seemingly collaborated with the party in engineering and orchestrating his purge. The African Union, the Southern African Development Community and ‘giants’ like Nigeria and South Africa did not sufficiently weigh in. But all of this may now be all-history and this illustrious land now has to begin again somehow. And here is why we must charge the people of Zimbabwe and indeed the rest of the continent to not simply permit the successors of Mugabe to raise the kinds of structures with which he had so fitfully decapitated the greater will of the people. This would be the final victory after all that we had lost.
And to be sure, Zimbabwe does have loads of challenges to resolve. It has record numbers of political refugees that had fled the country at the peak of Mugabe terror. It has even more hapless numbers of idling youths presently than the numbers this writer had encountered in 2000. At a point it had to get South Africa to loan it her own Central Bank Governor. And as at June 2015, its 100-trillion-dollar note was worth a mere 40 U.S dollars. Zimbabwe is a land that has been so savagely mis-governed and now needs everyone that can to weigh in to contribute their own bit. Will you join the rest of us in lifting up this great land once again?