September 6, 2019

Though no life is merely a statistic, the most selfish and wicked can occasionally be summed up in one. Here is one fact that does some work in summing up the life of the now, finally, late Robert Mugabe.

When the ZANU leader achieved power in Zimbabwe in 1980, the average life expectancy was just under 60. By 2006, when Mugabe had been ruling – or immiserating – that land for a little over a quarter of a century, he had achieved something that was, in its own way, remarkable. For now, Zimbabwean life expectancy was down to 37 for men and 34 for women. Indeed, the situation was so bad that average life expectancy for women had fallen by two years in just two years.

That statistic within a statistic is worth dwelling on. With a greater or lesser degree of acceptance, all human beings understand that every year we live is one year closer to the grave. But Zimbabwean women in the era of Mugabe weren’t just heading at the normal human pace towards the terrible silence, because at the time same they were moving towards it, it was moving towards them at the same speed. (By way of contrast, in Kenya during that same period, life expectancy increased 10 years in a decade, so that in 2013, the average Kenyan was no nearer to death than he had been in 2003.)

There were two reasons why the citizens of Zimbabwe found themselves in such a dreadful situation. The first was the dire economic system that Mugabe oversaw, one of incompetence, corruption and grand-scale theft that turned one of the breadbaskets of Africa into a basket case. Hyper-inflation was just one consequence, but for the average Zimbabwean this translated into food shortages, medical shortages and eventually shortages of just about everything.

The other nightmare unleashed on the Zimbabwean people was Aids. The scourge, which had affected every country in sub-Saharan Africa, rode through Zimbabwe with especial ease because it was helped along by what might be regarded as the precise opposite of a public information campaign.

Indeed, the Mugabe government’s attitude towards the pandemic might more correctly be described as a public disinformation campaign. It was designed to keep the general public not just in ignorance but actively misinformed about the way in which the virus is transmitted, how irreversible it then was after infection, and how it could best be avoided.

Again, Zimbabwean women were at the forefront of this scourge, being more likely than men to catch the virus. The ignorance that Mugabe promoted, and his reluctance to accept outside intervention to deal with the crisis, was another singular part of his legacy.

So there, in a single statistic, is the total life achievement of Robert Mugabe. At a time when living standards around the world were rising, when hundreds of millions of people were being raised out of extreme poverty and life expectancy was slowly rising, Mugabe managed to rob the average Zimbabwean woman of half her life. And this man, whose miserable achievement on earth might be summed up in that fact, has died – presumably as peacefully as his looted wealth allowed him to die – at the age of 95, in a private hospital in Singapore.

Zimbabwe has spent this past decade trying to find its way back from the brink, but the lesson of Mugabe’s life is precisely the inverse of the motivational instructions that most school children learn. If it is true that one person can make a difference, that one person can do an almost untold amount of good for the world if they put their mind to it, then the opposite is also true. The force of one wicked or evil individual can be enough to create an almost unimaginable amount of harm.

And while Mugabe, during his interminable presidency, presented the ruin of Zimbabwe either as some unavoidable fact, or the consequence of the wicked former colonialist power, so he managed only to demonstrate the fact that if the country had ended up in other hands – literally almost any other hands – the results could at the very least not have been worse.

Now that he is no longer with us, perhaps it is also worth reflecting on what lessons there are outside of Zimbabwe for how to deal with a figure like Mugabe. It is true that, for Britain, in particular, the relationship was a complicated one. Even low-level forms of soft-diplomatic pressure, such as throwing Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth, could be portrayed domestically as the former colonial rulers attempting to impose themselves once more. The history of the post-colonial period is no longer anywhere near being fully written, but when it is, we will need to ask how the likes of Mugabe (not that there were many like him) were able to get away with things simply by dint of not being European.

Almost every part of the leeway Mugabe was able to exercise – promiscuously at the start of his rule, though with diminishing returns towards its close – was predicated on that one simple fact: that he was not the colonial power. There is something to be said for the attitude, of course, but it is clear that the pendulum had swung too far.

In his memoir Gentle Regrets, the philosopher Roger Scruton recalls an occasion in 1985 when he was due to speak at Glasgow University. Various student organisations had found out that Scruton was a conservative, and specifically the then editor and publisher of the conservative journal The Salisbury Review, and so he was, not for the first or last time, subjected to a no-platforming at the university. And, by his own account, as Scruton wandered forlorn around the university grounds as his hosts tried to find a room anywhere on or off campus where they might safely hold his talk, he had the opportunity to watch a bit of Glasgow university pomp — a ceremonial procession in session to bestow the honour of an honorary degree on (Dr) Robert Mugabe.

It is easy at times like this to pass around photographs of the Queen and various British prime ministers with Mugabe, as though having to meet them in the course of official duties in any way suggested that any or all of them approved of him. But much more telling is that small vignette from Glasgow University 30 years ago, because, of course, the University did not have to meet Mugabe nor honour him, a man already responsible for a brutal massacre by this point. They chose to.

And in a snippet like that, one gets a glimpse of the larger question that will at some point have to be addressed: how Robert Mugabe was able to die so close to his centenary when his sole legacy on earth was stopping millions of his own people from reaching a third of that age.

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