In this three-hour long reflection on the controversial legacy of the late Zimbabwean former president Robert Mugabe organised by Professor Ibbo Mandaza under the Sapes auspices, scholars and analysts engage and delve deep into his complex and complicated personal life history, explore an intersection of ideas, events and personalities – historical junctures – that shaped and influenced him, and his historic contributions to the liberation struggle, as well as diminishing returns of his reign until the disastrous end.

The 2017 coup did not feature prominently in this discussion, although it is mentioned in passing, while other key features of his legacy like Gukurahundi, corruption, hyperinflation, currency decimation, exodus to the diaspora, stealing of elections and militarisation of politics were ignored.

The speakers look at his emergence on the political scene, his dramatic rise and fall, complexities of his character and rule, different historical epochs, generations and circumstances in which he operated and had to navigate – including the Cold War, Berlin Wall collapse and historical, and ultimately taking stock of the balance sheet of his leadership.

Mugabe would have turned 100 on Wednesday, having been on 21 February 1924 in his rural Zvimba home, Mashonaland West province, a year after Southern Rhodesia became a self-governing British Crown colony in 1923.

Before that it was ruled by the British South Africa Company.
Mugabe’s birthday has been turned into a national holiday, although there is no serious commitment to observing it.

The date 21 February every year is now a public holiday known as Robert Mugabe National Youth Day.
Mugabe is monumentalised in Zimbabwe despite his failures.

For instance, Zimbabwe’s biggest airport in Harare is named after him – Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport.
Many landmark streets across Zimbabwe’s cities and towns are also named after him.

Yet his legacy, complex and multidimensional as it is, is largely that of leaving behind a badly broken, impoverished and deeply divided nation.

While there are many factors that influence his legacy, Mugabe had the most dynamic agency and impact in shaping the outcome.

It will take Zimbabwe decades to recover for the devastation and depredations of Mugabe’s corrupt and incompetent rule.
Of course, there is a silver lining in the dark cloud of failed rule.

For example, Mugabe left a legacy of education, although the same education is simultaneously engulfed in a crisis of deterioration and expectation in the end.
That points to massive contradictions of his rule.

Mugabe educated people, but at the same time turned them into paupers – a nation with some of the best educated street vendors in the world.

Educated people who cannot solve some of the most simple problems in society, hence ironically flee to the former colonial power for jobs and survival.

Mugabe also educated his people for another nations through brain drain and emigration to diaspora, itself an indictment of his rule.
He empowered his people, but left them poor.

More contradictions follow.

He espoused Pan Africanism and was admired across Africa, but brutalised Africans at home through a reign of terror, earning the dubious distinction of being the only leader in the region to have commit genocide against his own fellow compatriots – Gukurahundi.

It is not possible, let alone credible, to assess Mugabe’s legacy without talking about the brutal and systematic human rights abuses, which scholars and his former officials tend to ignore in search of esoteric framing and analysis.

While he often postured as a revolutionary, he was only too happy to retain the colonial state security apparatus or structures and laws to win, consolidate and maintain power.

Armed with seven degrees, he liked being seen as an intellectual, but was in practice anti-intellectual. He was rigidly single-minded, hence did not like interrogation of his ideas.

His education and exposure did not put him above tribalism like other nationalists were.

Mugabe instrumentalised and weaponised ethnicity for votes and power.

Tribalism was his stock-in-trade. Zimbabwe has not been able to extricate itself from that. In fact, his successor is becoming a master on that.

When it came to securing power, he had no limits: Mugabe was shrewd and Machiavellian.

Ruthless. Deadly. Toxic.
But he had no similar political will and zeal to build and run the economy.
The economy was always a minor subject in his rule book.

He was not a benevolent dictator like Chinese, Singaporean and Malaysian leaders, for instance.
Historians and analysts struggle with what to call leaders like Mugabe.

Some fall for their pantomime of democracy; others offer awkward explanations by merely calling “complex characters”, yet offer analogies to historical strongmen, ideologically labelling him a “Maoist”, “Marxist” or “Pan Africanist”.

He was ideologically an obscurantist.

Sometimes scholars do not help the situation by engaging in sophistry in trying to unpack him in ways that end up merely producing fraudulent rationalisations and revisionism.

The key to this is deception: most dictators conceal their true nature and leave people debating who they actually are or were, even when a clear-minded, rigorous and discerning scholarship can easily penetrate the obfuscation.

Dictators have been changing, but Mugabe could not hide his rough edges, venality and moral bankruptcy in the end.

While he participated in the liberation struggle, became popular and won power, giving the levers of state power to make important policy moves like on education, land, forwign affairs, attendant contributions to multilateral organisations and geopolitical conflicts, but this pales into insignificance when one factors in some of his biggest depredations and ghastly failures: human rights atrocities, including Gukurahundi, violence, criminalising difference and political intolerance, decimating the local currency and leaving Zimbabwe a chaotic dystopia.

What is needed more is not romanticisation of Mugabe and trying to rescue him from his own ugly legacy through rose-tinted glasses analysis, but authoritative accounts through critical lens of his destructive hold on power, assessing challenges and opportunities in Zimbabwe as it seeks to emerge from the rubble and chaos that he left it buried under.