Robert Mugabe is the sort of figure that always caused discomfort. He was a permanent revolutionary, becoming, in time, the despotic ruler who frittered away revolutionary gain. He played multiple roles in international political consciousness. As Zimbabwe's strongman, he was demonised and lionised in equal measure for a good deal of his time in power. His role from the 1990s - Mugabe, the West's all-too-convenient bogeyman and hobgoblin - tended to outweigh other considerations. In the end, even his supporters had to concede that he had outstayed his welcome, another African leader gone to seed.
In 2008, Mahmood Mamdani noted the generally held view in publications ranging from The Economist to The Guardian that Mugabe the Thug reigned. Yes, he had helped in laying waste to the economy, refusing to share power with a more vocal and present opposition, and created an internal crisis with his land distribution policy. But this did little to explain his longevity, his recipe of partial coercion and consent, the teacher-visionary and the bribing mob leader. "In any case, the preoccupation with his character does little to illuminate the socio-historical issues involved."
The obsession with character - one of Mephistophelian bargain and decay - is found in both the literature and the popular culture depicting Mugabe. The stock story is this: he taught in Ghana in 1963, a key figure in the nationalist movement split in what was then Rhodesia, becoming secretary general of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). The Shona dominated ZANU was formed from the original Ndebele ethnic minority dominated Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU).
Prison followed in 1964; Mugabe fled to Mozambique in 1974 though not before a spell of imprisonment at the hands of Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda (his escape was probably engineered by Zambians); by 1977, he had assumed control of the organisation, though Mozambique's President Samora Machel never quite trusted him, taking a leaf out of Kaunda's book in detailing the mischief maker, albeit briefly. Military victory was sought against the Smith regime in what was then white-controlled Rhodesia, and it was with some reluctance that Mugabe found himself a signatory to the British-sponsored settlement in 1979, one assisted by Lord Carrington, Kaunda, the Commonwealth Secretary General, Shridath Ramphal, and, ironically enough, white apartheid South Africa.
On becoming leader, he was deliciously accommodating in his rhetoric, despite having entertained the prospect of confiscating land owned by whites a la Marx-Lenin and wishing to hold white leaders to account in war crimes trials. In his national address in 1980, he spoke of the bonds of amity; he wished for bygones to be bygones. "If you were my enemy, you are now my friend. If you hated me, you cannot avoid the love that binds me to you and you to me."
Initially, Mugabe the progressive shone through: healthcare and education programs were expanded; literary rates and living standards rose; white farmers were reassured that mobs would not be knocking on their doors. Whites were included in a mixed cabinet; heads reappointed in the army, the police and the Central Intelligence Organisation. But he had his eye on dealing with rivals.
In 1983, former members of ZAPU's military outfit attacked targets in Matabeleland. The result was uncompromisingly bloody: anywhere upwards of 20,000 civilians killed; many more tortured, maimed, tormented. In four years, ZAPU had been defeated, absorbed into the ZANU-PF structure. The extinguishment of such rivalry paved the way for a Mugabe presidency and near-absolute rule.
By the 1990s, economic conditions were biting. Real wages fell; the International Monetary Fund demanded domestic readjustments to the economy. Economic stagnation kept company with increasingly repressive policies against journalists, students and opponents. Calculatingly, Mugabe propitiated war veterans by awarding them generous pensions in 1997. Then came the next threat: the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai.
In February 2000, a national vote on a redesigned draft constitution, the progeny of ZANU-PF, proposed British compensation for land; absent that, white farms would be seized without due compensation. Its defeat by a narrow margin saw Mugabe step up his campaign, featuring farm occupations and the sponsorship of veterans to assist in invasions of farms owned by white farmers. Mugabe was returning to an old platform.
The prevailing psycho-portraiture for such behaviour is never consistent. One variant finds its culprit in a decision Mugabe made in 1996. Secretary Grace Marufu, 41 years Mugabe's junior, became his wife, considered within certain circles a less than worthy replacement for Sally, who died in 1992. Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean newspaper spared no punches, seeing in Marufu a lever pulling, power hungry creature akin to Lady Macbeth. "He changed the moment Sally died, when he married a young gold-digger."
His former home affairs minister, Dumiso Dabengwa, pinpointed a different year when the great compromiser and negotiator changed: 2000. There are no gold-digging suggestions, merely political manipulations filtered with a bit of paranoia. "He held compromising material over several of his colleagues and they knew they would face criminal charges if they opposed him."
Overwhelmingly, the narrative is of the great hope that failed, the rebel who trips. This echo of the good man gone bad is detectable in celluloid, with the fictional state of Matobo in The Interpreter, featuring as its political backdrop a bookish schoolteacher who defeated a white-minority regime but fouled up matters by turning into a tyrant. "The CIA-backed film," suggested the then acting Minister for Information and Publicity, Chen Chimutengwende, "showed that Zimbabwe's enemies did not rest."