Nobody would like to be even remotely connected with a discredited dictator. Unless, that is, you happen to be caught up with Hitler or Stalin or Salazar as a name (Vassalo or Kennedy might be better), that is.
The last week saw the slow-motion overthrow of the world longest surviving ruler, Robert Mugabe. Dictator, thug, thief, murderer, ruthless, demented, ferocious, the most dangerous person, destroyer, wife snatcher, die-hard diamond thief and selfish were among the many words used to describe him.
Today, everyone would like to stay far away from him. Like was the case with Indira Gandhi, and her ignominious electoral defeat at the end of the Emergency in 1977. (As an aside, I recall my mum having written a solidarity mail to ‘Mrs G’, and getting back a signed 15 paise postcard from the former premier, still part of my collection somewhere.)
But I wonder if many in Goa would remember our region’s close encounter with Mugabe himself. It was way back in the 1980s, when all of us were much younger, and the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) ‘Retreat’ was being held here. Mugabe was then quite a different personality. He was a hero of the decolonisation movement in Africa, someone who had just managed to win a 15-year guerrilla war.
Mugabe was not just a hero then but was an articulate one too. He could speak fluently. One laudatory profile of the 93-year-old ruler said he “speaks the Queen’s language better than the rest of the world”.
As young journalists, we looked at him with awe. Besides being fluent in the language, he was not one to be cowed down by the affluent (and then leagues ahead) Western world. Instead, he stood up and spoke boldly about their responsibility in colonising large parts of the planet, the underdevelopment of Asia-Africa-Latin America, and continuing oppression to these times.
When he began speaking, with his characteristically formal-informal greeting of “Ladies and gentlemen, friends and comrades…” everyone paid full attention. He captured many minds and hearts with his words and ideas. So much so that some young journalists I knew were prank-calling their colleagues, pretending to be the “press secretary of Zimbabwe”.
Mugabe had another connection with Goa. While attending the CHOGM Retreat here, he took time off his schedule to search for the grave, if one recalls right, of some fellow tribesman or ancestor who was a Catholic priest and had served or was buried probably at Chimbel. The priest, written about in the media of those times, came from the Mutapa Empire (called Monomotapa in Portuguese). The founders of this empire are descendants of the builders of Great Zimbabwe (a medieval city and the capital during the Late Iron Age).
Those were times when many of us were still coming to terms with the legacy of colonialism, and how it had shaped our past and present. Ideologies like Third World-ism were still dominant, and catchy. In the media, were caught up with concerns like the New International Information Order, and how unfair the global exchange of news still was.
Cut to 2017, and we have a 93-year-old ruler whom most of the world sees as a hopelessly outdated dictator. How did the hero who fought for independence and an end to white-minority rule become a wily politician, the “caricature of an African dictator, who destroyed an entire country in order to keep his job” (as the BBC put it)? By now, the media depiction of Mugabe had completely changed. As much as he was idolized and lionized by the press and radio in the 1980s, he was lambasted in more recent times.
In between, I met participants from Zimbabwe at some seminar, and they were quite happy to part with some million Zimbabwean dollar notes! The fact was that for $100 trillion in Zimbabwe, one could barely manage to buy a candy bar. Today, collectors buy these notes on ebay.com for a somewhat higher price though.
The economy had collapsed terribly; there were shortages and dislocations of all kinds. The idealism had vanished. Writing a mildly sympathetic account of his 37-year-long term in power, The Guardian (UK) pointed out that many blame Mugabe for economic chaos and political repression “but the truth of his descent from freedom fighter to dictator is not quite so black and white”. For instance, there were shades of the Cold War and the China-USSR dispute in the Mugabe battle for power with Joshua Nkomo, another Zimbabwean leader. There were tribal divides too. The British expected Mugabe to play the role of a pro-Western, Westminister-style democratic leader. Both Britain and the US aided his conventional programme of social and economic reforms when he first took power. Zimbabwe was rocked by external events: the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the collapse of the Soviet Union. pressures from the IMF. His expropriation of fertile White farms at fixed prices saw the US and Britain cut support.
But whatever the causes, the food basket of southern Africa became a land known for political repression, chronic poverty, a worthless currency, hyperinflation, collapsing education and healthcare, homelessness and high unemployment. Ironically enough, the man succeeding Mugabe is someone known by the sobriquet of The Crocodile. A visitor from South Africa was also sharing how bad things had got in that (nearby to Zimbabwe) part of the world under President Zuma, and you can easily learn about the particularly dubious role played there by some Indian expats called the Gupta brothers.
What are the lessons to be learnt from the Catholic, yoga-practising, vegetarian ruler of 93? Can his young wife alone be blamed for all the ills that became part of Zimbabwe? Should Mugabe have gone at a time when the going was good? Can too much of idealism (accompanied by the belief that we alone know best) undermine even a popular ruler? Can rhetoric and bombast be a substitute for good governance? Or is this just a prime example of absolute power corrupting absolutely?