The Complexity of Robert Mugabe’s Leadership in Zimbabwe (1974- 1990)

Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, is often portrayed ONLY as either the demon who destroyed Zimbabwe or the hero who liberated it. Perhaps by going back into history we can actually understand how Robert Mugabe came to lead the southern African nation of Zimbabwe and how his party, ZANU-PF became the powerhouse it is today.

In fighting within ZANU during the 1970s and criticism of the then head Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole led to a series of assassinations and power struggles. Between 1964 and 1974, Mugabe spent his time in detention and it was while in prison that Mugabe managed to take over the party in a three to one vote. Mugabe was released from prison in December 1974. A few days before the assassination of former party chairman Hebert Chitepo, Mugabe secretly travelled to Mozambique. Many leaders like Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Mozambique’s Samora Machel and guerilla leaders like Josiah Tongogara did not immediately accept his ascension to the head of the party. Mugabe’s arrival in Mozambique created serious conflict between guerillas who had been fighting and those who had been recently released from prison. Many young guerillas were displaced due to conflict around tribal and ethnic lines, tactics and ideology. In 1978 several guerillas were ousted and arrested while in Mozambique, including those from the Zimbabwe People’s Army (ZIPA).

Mugabe_1982_bThe ZIPA was made up of more than 40 other ZANLA commanders who drafted the Mgagao Declaration. The Mgagao Declaration of 3 October 1975 stated they would restart the war with a unified army, that ZANU’s president Ndabaningi Sithole had discredited himself, and that the ‘next in line’, Robert Mugabe, while unknown to the soldiers but just below  Sithole in the party’s hierarchy would step in. Training camp disputes in June 1976 between former ZIPRA and former ZANLA soldiers later resulted in casualties

However, by 1979, Mugabe had managed to restructure the party and keep the guerillas in check by making the military wing subordinate to the central committee made up of mostly politicians despite the real losses on the part of those actually doing the fighting. While most liberation soldiers received help from Mozambique and Zambia, Zimbabwean guerrilla forces also operated on a low level in Namibia and Botswana, and particularly in Mozambique.

In September 1979, when the Lancaster House agreement was signed, ZANU and ZAPU were facing pressure from Mozambique and Zambia to reach a settlement because of the economic toll of the war on their respective economies. Joshua Nkomo had better relations with Zambia, the OAU (now African Union) and even the United Nations, while Bishop Muzorewa was still favored by the South Africans. The British initially wanted to sideline Mugabe because of the guerilla tactics used by ZANU’s ZANLA. Even, after the agreement was reached, many guerillas did not go to assembly points but stayed in the villages and were accused of intimidating people prior to the election. Meanwhile, the British and the Smith regime colluded to frustrate ZANU by not offering public services that had been given to Muzorewa’s organization and by allowing South African troops to remain the country in breach of the Lancaster House agreement.


The election in 1980 reflected the seeds of tribalism sown in the military camps and in the negotiations. The majority Shona gave Mugabe 57 seats in Parliament, while the Ndebele and Karanga who were 19% of the population gave Nkomo 20 seats. Muzorewa only secured 3 seats. Mugabe’s belief and pursuit of a one party state can be summarized in his belief that a multi-party state is a, “luxury a developing country cannot afford”

In 1980, Mugabe inherited an economy heavily dependent on South Africa after Ian Smith’s 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence.  In 1980, the self-professed Marxist, Mugabe rather accepted a mixed sector economy with thousands of large white farms and mining ventures owned by foreign capital. Interestingly, he gave two influential economic posts to white citizens, Dennis Norman, became Minister of Agriculture and David C. Smith, and took over Commerce and Industry.

However, many financial  pledges  from  donors  at  the  Zimbabwe  Conference  on  Reconstruction  and  Development (ZIMCORD) in March 1981 were never fulfilled and slowed Zimbabwe’s early progress. In the early 1980s Zimbabwe’s economy had a relatively diversified export base, and the government’s decision to restrict external borrowing after 1983 also strengthened their ability to withstand western influences. During this time, multinationals especially from South Africa also disinvested from Zimbabwe.

After 1990, when Zimbabwe was unable to service its external debt to the World Bank (WB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), Mugabe was persuaded to implement economic reforms through a Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). These reforms included liberalization of the economy and privatization of government controlled or government owned companies, a drastic shift from the planned development strategy he had used since 1980.  The reforms under the ESAP (Economic  Structural  Adjustment  Programme) had disastrous consequences  for  the  economy such as continuous currency devaluation,  wage  declines,  massive  retrenchments,  rising  rates  of  unemployment, and widespread deindustrialization.

The complexity of Mugabe’s relationship with western organizations like the IMF and World Bank continues to this day:


  • The United States states that it has given Zimbabwe $2.6BN in aid and loans since 1980 and $100M in the last 10 years for the construction of education buildings in Zimbabwe’s schools.
  • In 2016, the International Monetary Fund gave Zimbabwe $984 million. The Zimbabwe government agrees to compensate evicted white farmers and reduce its public sector wage bill. The government is to compensate white farmers for lost land and improvements by charging land rental tax
  • In 2016, the Africa Export-Import Bank gave Zimbabwe $601M to pay its debt to the African Development Bank.

Meanwhile Mugabe’s relationship with China also remains complex as reflected in current loans and deals signed:

  • Zimbabwe’s diamond industry had generated $15BN USD since its inception in 2008 but that money is unaccounted for according to the President
  • In 2013, Zimbabwe’s diamond industry produced 12.1 million carats and many mining rights to Zimbabwe’s diamond industry were given to Chinese firms.
  • Zimbabwe owes China about $1BN borrowed since Mugabe introduced the “Look East Policy”.
  • When Zimbabwe failed to make its first payment of $40M USD, China allegedly cancelled the payment in exchange for Zimbabwe’s agreement to use the Yuan as its official currency instead of the USD causing shortages of USD in Zimbabwe and government resorting to using bond notes.

As of 2016 Zimbabwe is $8.3BN in debt with $1.8BN in arrears.

Source: globalblackhistory


Written by PH

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