The founding and first president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, died today, two years after being toppled in a coup. Mugabe, who ruled over the country for a whole three decades from 1987, leaves behind a country plagued by economic mismanagement and squandered potential. Years of hyperinflation and shortage of basic services like power generation have turned what was once one of the wealthiest countries in Africa into one of the most problematic, with emigrants leaving in droves for South Africa just to make ends meet. Mugabe, without a doubt, should be blamed for the downward spiral that sank Zimbabwe into poverty.
Yet, looking back, Mugabe's rise from a schoolteacher to a freedom fighter against the white-minority government of Rhodesia was inspirational, if not peaceful. He was initially celebrated as a hero of black emancipation, a source of pride for a previously oppressed native population ready to take charge of their own country and its abundant resources. It is that sense of respect that saw Mugabe maintain popular support to a large degree, despite the economic mismanagement, corruption, and violent crackdown of the opposition that gradually saw him cast as an international pariah in his later years.
While the level of misery Mugabe brought to the Zimbabwean people through his misrule is certainly exceptional and extreme, a quick survey of the African continent show that Mugabe is far from alone in deriving legitimacy from successfully ousting European colonists from positions of power. In too many African countries, the leader of the independence movement, like Mugabe, decided to stay for decades in power after acquiring the status as a hero of the oppressed people, then misusing the resulting political legitimacy to rule in ways that are far from beneficial for the common people.
And just like Mugabe, these African independence leaders prove themselves to be far more adept at leading an independence movement than governing a country and developing its economy. While many do not come close to Mugabe in misruling, far too many, through sheer economic incompetence, allowed their respective countries to languish while the rest of the world surged ahead. The fact that the languishing takes place shows just how high of expectations their citizens place in the heroes of independence; the people have come to believe that their leaders, having overthrown the whites, are the best hope they got for improving their lives.
Such high expectations from the people prevent the heroes of independence to simply walk away when their jobs as founding presidents of their respective countries are complete. Mugabe the schoolteacher should know very well that he does not have the skills and know-how of running a sovereign state. A group of technocrats could have taken over to operate the state more effectively. Yet his unparalleled stature among the people simply did not allow him to walk away and even be hands-off in managing the state. He personified hope for the people and he had to play along with it to keep the country together.
But decades of misrule later, when the hope of the people faded away, Mugabe still believed in his indispensable heroism. On a continent of young people, he and other nonagenarian leaders stuck around far too long because they continued to believe in their continued anti-colonial legacy when their people no longer thought of it as relevant. To sustain their increasingly delusional sense of continuing grandeur from the past, they had to resort to violence, censorship, and cronyism. To keep friends close and dissidents in jail are the only ways they felt the grandeur can be maintained.
Such is the African leaders' love-hate relationship with the colonial legacy. From no one, they rose to prominence by leading the noble battles against the oppressive colonists. Their success in achieving independence for their people gave them political legitimacy and high expectations to lead new countries despite having little state-governing expertise. Instead of fulfilling the hopes of economic development, they simply inherited colonial institutions, the very things that they rose up to fight against, and used them to enrich family and friends for far too long.
When Mugabe and other African independence leaders die of old age after decades in power, many will talk about how they could have better leveraged their power to make their countries and people more prosperous. But that discussion should not discount how overthrowing colonialism put Mugabe and his contemporaries in a position of unequaled influence, giving them a free rein to abuse and drown themselves in the illusion of continued popular support due to past anti-colonial achievements. Indeed, Mugabe was made and then unmade by an omnipresent colonial legacy. Other African leaders should very much take note.
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