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Tyrant who led once prosperous nation towards dreadful decline

Paul Hopkins (right) at work as a reporter in Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe
Paul Hopkins (right) at work as a reporter in Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe

By Paul Hopkins

On the day after he came to power in April 1980, Robert Mugabe summoned his old adversary Ian Smith, the former minority white ruler of the breakaway colony of Rhodesia, to his office.

"Good old Smithy", as he was affectionately called by his privileged white supporters, was greeted with a warm handshake and a broad smile. The cordiality uneased him somewhat: after all, Mugabe had promised his liberated people he would publicly hang Smith in Harare's Union Square.

Instead, Mugabe told Smith that he was conscious of what he had inherited from his old adversaries - a jewel of a country, with superb infrastructure and an efficient, modern economy.

And he promised to keep it that way. If Ian Smith had ever doubted the wisdom of unilaterally breaking away from Britain almost 20 years earlier, it was that day. He told his wife Janet over dinner that evening that perhaps he had been wrong all along about a black government being incapable of running his beloved Rhodesia. That maybe, just maybe, the Jesuit-educated Robert Gabriel Mugabe was capable of "responsible government".

As he wrote, in his autobiography: "Here was this chap and he was speaking like a sophisticated, balanced, sensible man.

And I thought: 'If he practises what he preaches, then it will be fine'. And it was fine for five or six months... "

But, as we now know, Mugabe was not the sophisticated, sensible chap Ian Smith had briefly hoped for. During the first majority election in 1980 Mugabe's lieutenants were out in the rural areas beating just about anybody who campaigned in what he regarded as his territory.

Even as he was seeing Ian Smith out of Government Buildings in April 1980, Mugabe was plotting the destruction of another group of political enemies - the Matabele people in southern Zimbabwe, those who held allegiance to his former Patriotic Front comrade-in-arms Joshua Nkomo.

Between 1986 and 1988 up to 20,000 people were annihilated by Mugabe's Korean-trained special forces, in a campaign of torture and murder that has never been fully exposed.

Mugabe showed himself to be the type of African leader that "good old Smithy" had long campaigned against throughout the years of Unilateral Declaration of Independence.

Yet, President-for-Life Robert Mugabe was wined and dined by Western leaders and honoured and conferred with numerous doctorates. The UN awarded him for the country's food production and voted him Best African in 1990.

The fact is that Mugabe throughout his long reign was more useful to the West clean than exposed as a tyrant. It made sense to keep the Zimbabwean leader onside - and ignore that he had dirtied his copy book.

Four decades on unemployment is around 90%, civil liberties and political freedom, as assessed by the Freedom House organisation, are well below those recorded in the 1970s under white minority rule. Life expectancy is now one of the lowest in the world.

When I went there in 1977 as a young journalist to cover the last three years of the 'Bush War' that eventually ended with Mugabe rolling down Salisbury's main street in 1980 in his armoured tank, I fell in love with what was a paradise of sorts.

Today Zimbabwe is a failed state with a non-functioning economy, a once-flourishing agricultural sector in tatters and a people on the verge of starvation. The first 20 years of Mugabe's reign saw a slow decline, so slow the rest of the world, hardly noticed what was happening - and those who did chose to ignore it.

In his autobiography Smith, who died in 2012 aged 88, talked about the loneliness of having to break from the former colonial power because he, unlike Britain, did not believe the majority blacks were yet ready to be the architects of their own destiny.

He believed, to his last breath, that "fair-minded" whites had been betrayed by just about everybody he could think of - the Tories, Labour, the Afrikaaners, the Organisation of African Unity, the UN. No surprise then, that he called his biography The Great Betrayal.

  • Paul Hopkins reported from Rhodesia for Irish media from 1977 to 1980

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