In 1996, I met President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. He had the demeanor of a headmaster and spoke with a clipped English accent that reminded one of Africans who had lived too long in England. He asked me what I thought of Zimbabwe.
I told him Harare reminded me of Nairobi of the early 1980s when the city was still green and less congested. He asked me what I thought of the land reforms that he was implementing. Zimbabwe was already turning chaotic and the economy was already heading towards the precipice. "Your Excellency, I think it’s the right thing to do, but it could have been done better," I answered. I referred to our own experience with land reforms in Kenya.
"Young man, (he repeatedly referred to me as young man), we fought for independence. Twenty thousand of our people died in the bush. Many of us were jailed for years and our families faced untold miseries. Independence is not having a flag. Independence is having our own land and deciding our own destiny. At independence the British government asked us to wait for 10 years to solve the land issue. I was very unhappy but agreed reluctantly. They promised to help buy out the white farmers.
"After 10 years Margaret Thatcher basically told me she would not honour her government's promise and said it should be a willing buyer-willing seller arrangement. Young man, do you know that 4,625 white farmers own 80 per cent of the arable land of Zimbabwe? Do you know that they actually farm only 40 per cent of that land? Meanwhile Zimbabweans still have no land?"
The figures shocked me into silence.
I countered back that there was no need to kill white farmers. "Young man," he continued, "since the land acquisitions started, only six farmers have been killed. It’s very sad and unfortunate. I subscribe to the Farmers Almanac (periodical) from South Africa and every month at least 15 white farmers are murdered in South Africa."
He insisted that he had to do what he did because future generations would never forgive him if he did not get back the land for his people. "The blood of 20,000 heroes call out to me for action. I had to do it."
He argued that Zimbabwe was being punished, not because of what he did, but as a warning to South Africa where the problem is even much larger. "If Zimbabwe is successful, then the South Africans will have to follow suit and take over the white farms. Zimbabwe has to be sacrificed to ensure that South African white farms are not taken over."
Of course Mugabe was right. If he had not forced the issue, Zimbabweans would still not own their land. Because Zimbabwe became such a mess, Nelson Mandela and his men ended up accepting so many political and economic compromises that to date the land issue has not been solved.
No wonder Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Party are rising in popularity. Zimbabwe has paid the price for the compromises that Mandela was forced to accept. There is a sense that the political freedom of South Africa did not bring the desired economic changes that the proletariat wanted and expected.
The xenophobia that we see today is the poor hitting back at other Africans who they feel have "stolen" their opportunities. When a whole generation feels it has no hope, then they start hitting out at any perceived enemy. Let this be a warning to us too, in Kenya, when thousands of graduates lose hope in finding jobs and a future.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Mugabe, the former school teacher, improved the education of his people so much that today Zimbabweans are among the most educated people in Africa. They work as professionals all over the world.
However, Mugabe the freedom fighter became the repressive tyrant. He jailed his compatriots like Joshua Nkomo, sent in troops to violently sort out the Ndebele tribe. The land reforms became land grabs for his closest supporters. Sanctions led to massive corruption and economic mismanagement that finally destroyed that beautiful country.
Mugabe, despite all the problems that he created, still managed to win election after election – assisted by some creative accounting. Truthfully, despite the rising opposition in the urban areas, Mugabe remained a popular figure in Zimbabwe.
Men have lost kingdoms because of the women they love. Mugabe did the unpardonable sin of allowing bedroom politics into national politics. Perhaps had his wife Grace Mugabe not involved herself in succession politics, Mugabe might have died a president.
Today, as we wait for the hero’s burial, let us recall Shakespeare’s famous words from Julius Caesar: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them, the good is often interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar”.
Unfortunately, as we bury Mugabe, we will remember the evil he left behind. Let us as Africans try to remember the good that he did too.
Mr Shahbal is Chairman of Gulf Group of Companies [email protected]