Robert Mugabe, who died September 6, became internationally infamous during his 30-year tenure as Zimbabwe's president. Posthumous appraisals discuss his history as a fighter against white Rhodesia, but are focusing on his gutting of the country's economy and democratic institutions. Often unmentioned is the Marxist-Leninist ideological context in which his policies and politics were incubated.
As many British and French African colonies were gaining independence in the 1950s, a young Robert Mugabe was teaching in Ghana, where he attended the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute, devoted to spreading socialist ideals. Here he was heavily influenced by faculty from Communist East Germany.
After his 1960 return to Southern Rhodesia, Mugabe joined the Zimbabwe African Patriotic Union (ZAPU), which fought for black majority rule in the white-supremacist nation. ZAPU's president, Joshua Nkomo, was allowed to freely hold meetings and preach for the cause. Mugabe, on the other hand, was quickly identified as a "communist," arrested, and given a ten-year prison sentence. Mugabe's time in prison, where he did an enormous amount of reading, only deepened his belief in Marxism-Leninism as the solution for future Zimbabwe.
When Mugabe took power, many expected him to act harshly toward the former white rulers; instead, he named whites to his cabinet, and worked to provide security for white farmers, who contributed to Zimbabwe's substantial agricultural export wealth from crops like tobacco. But Mugabe was still a committed Marxist-Leninist, and discouraged private investment in practically every other sector.
The crunch came in the early 1990s. Mugabe, who possessed numerous degrees, was a great believer in education, and diverted significant resources for all levels of schooling to the deprived black community. But the new high school and university graduates had no serious employment prospects in the Leninist state, and many departed for better opportunities in post-apartheid South Africa, which faced an opposite problem after decades of racial oppression: plenty of employment opportunities, but few qualified candidates. Millions of Zimbabweans remain in South Africa to this day.
With Zimbabwe's economy in steep decline, and amid growing dissatisfaction with Mugabe and ZANU-PF, Mugabe advanced a 2000 constitutional referendum to increase his power, which failed. Mugabe decided that the best way to improve his popularity was to transfer white-owned farmland to blacks, who still farmed less fertile and less productive land. He asked the British government for financial assistance to purchase the land, but London turned him down. Enraged, he decided to simply seize it without compensation, and turn it over to his political cronies, most of whom had no knowledge of farming. The agricultural sector, once Zimbabwe's crown jewel, quickly collapsed.
The next decades followed a familiar playbook for 20th century regimes using Marxism-Leninism as a hook. The ideological notion of the "vanguard party" – a proletarian organization designed to protect the revolution from class enemies – provided a convenient rationale for ZANU-PF to maintain permanent power, even as its legitimacy was in freefall under corruption and democratic sabotage. Mugabe's second wife, Grace, engaged in machinations and purges to eliminate his senior allies in the party and clear out potential successors.
Hyperinflation, caused by widespread graft and money-printing to finance Zimbabwe's military campaign in the Congolese wars, resulted in one of the worst financial and economic disasters in world history. Eventually the government gave up on the Zimbabwean currency altogether and switched to the United States dollar, but this year it reneged, and inflation has begun again.
Mugabe's damage to Zimbabwe's institutions will be difficult to undo, and it is not clear that Emmerson Mnangagwa – a lifelong ZANU-PF man nicknamed "The Crocodile" for his political manipulations – has improved the country's prospects so far. While the current outlook may be grim, the political opposition is stronger than ever, and Zimbabweans are unlikely to suffer another economic collapse without substantial protest. To the surprise of some observers, Mugabe's state funeral was not well attended. It may be up to the people to move the country away from Mugabe's ideological rule to a modern economy and a democratic dispensation.
Despite Mugabe's Marxism-Leninism, he was consistently friendly to the U.S. in his foreign policy. In 1990, when I was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, President George H.W. Bush asked me to secure Zimbabwe's support at the UN Security Council for the coming Gulf War to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Zimbabwe was both an ally of Saddam Hussein, as part of the "non-aligned movement," and one of three rotating African members of the UNSC. I anticipated that he would side with Saddam. On the contrary, after a moment, he said: "I don't like strong powers invading weak powers. Zimbabwe will vote to support the U.S. using force against Saddam."