Sweden and Mugabe — Global Issues

  • Opinion by Jan Lundius (stockholm, sweden)
  • Inter Press Service

Nazi Germany was equalled with Hitler, the Soviet Union with Stalin, Communist China with Mao, and now Russia with Putin. Another example of the identification of an entire nation with a totalitarian ruler was Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. A president who apart from participating in the invasion of a neighbouring country led his nation into a bloody civil war.

When I in the year 2000 was working for the Swedish International Development Cooperation (Sida) it was questioned why the Swedish Government every year granted SEK 140 million (USD 15 million) in development aid to Zimbabwe, a country governed by a scorned Robert Mugabe. At that time, Zimbabwe’s GNI had in one year shrunk by 13 percent, among other things due to unbudgeted expenses for the country’s participation in a war in the DR Congo (from 1998 to 2003 Zimbabwe’s participation in this war cost USD 1 million a day). A badly managed land reform had drastically reduced agricultural production. Even before the crisis 75 percent of the population was unable to meet necessary needs of food, clothing, schooling, health care and housing. Unemployment was over 60 percent, while 25 percent of the adult population was infected with HIV/AIDS.

Misery was blamed on Mugabe’s misrule, but Swedish support to Zimbabwe continued during his reign. Since Swedish aid was initiated in the early1980s Zimbabwe had by the year 2000 received SEK 5 billion (approximately USD 460 million). Economic support currently amounts to USD 28 million per year.

Swedish relations with Robert Mugabe indicate difficulties opinion leaders face while analysing the power game of other nations. For fear of being seen as harbouring neo-colonial attitudes “experts” often withheld critical judgment and were apt to name various leaders as ”hopes for Africa”. Unfortunately personal benefits from supremacy may prove to be a fatal temptation , several heroes of yesterday have after their seizure of power turn into despots.

In the case of Zimbabwe (which at the time was “Rhodesia” governed by a white minority party, the Rhodesian Front) it was reasonable to oppose a regime that kept the majority of a nation’s population out of power because of the colour of their skin. Swedish debate has often been characterized by two different worldviews, either that the world consists of democracies and dictatorships, with the former being on the good side, or that an enduring conflict subsists between the “West” and the “Rest”, where “West” is seen as the villain. According to the latter understanding , it did not matter if Zanu (PF), the party of Robert Mugabe, actually pursued one-party rule, any opposition towards the “ancient colonial world order” was OK.

It was thus more justifiable to support an armed struggle than the democratic consensus policy proclaimed by another Zimbabwean liberation group, Zapu, headed by Joshua Nkomo. The influential Pierre Schori, international secretary of the Swedish Social Democratic Party and close assistant to Prime Minister Olof Palme, supported the “eloquent and radical” Mugabe:

    I think that it had to do with personal contacts. In the case of Zimbabwe, we did not choose between Zapu and Zanu, but I think that when Joshua Nkomo came to Sweden it was often through the churches, while Robert Mugabe was more of a pure freedom fighter.

Mugabe spoke fluent English, with an “exquisite” Oxford accent. He liked “open conversations and intellectual debates”, and in spite of an aversion to English colonialism he was an admirer of “Anglophone culture” and a fan of cricket, attesting that it “civilizes people and creates good gentlemen.”

Mugabe had been arrested in 1963 and was after 1966 transferred to a cell he shared with Zanu’s leader Ndabaningi Sithole. Mugabe remained in custody for a further eight years, devoting his time to studies. He gained a masters in economics, a bachelor of administration, and two law degrees from the University of London. Amnesty International’s Swedish Group 34 had as its lot to support the imprisoned freedom fighter. One member of the group later stated;

– He took advantage of the opportunity to study in prison and asked us to get literature. So we members shared the expenses and sent books to him. At that time, Mugabe was considered as a good guy. He was very fond of children and always remembered all our children’s names and greeted them in his letters. In addition to the books, Mugabe also asked for help with items such as a pair of pyjamas and tubes of toothpaste. Before his release, I and Eva Moberg , who had started the group, went and bought a suitcase, which we sent to him with his wife Sally.

In 1958, Mugabe had moved to Ghana to gain a teacher’s certificate at the Achimota College where he met his first wife, Sally Hafton. During Mugabe’s imprisonment Sally first moved to London, where she taught at the Africa Centre. She also lived for several years in Sweden, mostly in the village of Heby, north of the university town of Uppsala. She kept close contact with the members of Amnesty Group 34. Mugabe appreciated that Sally was staying in Sweden, which he considered to be a “safe country”. Sally worked as a nanny, learned Swedish and campaigned for Zimbabwe’s freedom struggle, both in Sweden and England. In Sweden, she became a frequently seen and well-liked person.

Mugabe was released in 1974 and resolved to leave Rhodesia for Moçambique. However, Samora Machel, who in 1975 became Moçambique’s president, was suspicious of Mugabe, whom he considered to be immature and belligerent. Furthermore, Machel suspected that Mugabe’s quick rise to power was due to machinations to get rid of Sithole as head of Zanu, a “prison coup” that might have been supported by Rhodesia’s white leader, Ian Smith. Machel put Mugabe under house arrest in Quelimane, far from the Zimbabwean guerrilla camps. It was rumoured that Machel was jealous of Mugabe’s intellectual achievements, preferring more down-to-earth men, especially the Zimbabwean guerrilla commander Josiah Tongogara. Contrary to Machel, Mugabe had never been an active fighter. When Machel in 1980 attended Mugabe’s inauguration as Zimbabwe’s president, he was well aware of Mugabe’s intention to form a one-party government, giving his Shona supporters absolute power. Machel addressed Mugabe:

    To ensure national unity, there must be no Shonas in Zimbabwe, there must be no Ndebeles in Zimbabwe, there must be Zimbabweans. Some people are proud of their tribalism. But we call tribalists reactionary agents of the enemy. Zimbabwe is the jewel of Africa. Don’t tarnish it!

Some of Mugabe’s Swedish acquaintances were suspicious of him:

    He considered himself to be a superior teacher, a professor. He had six different degrees, he was a learned and well-read man. Therefore, he believed that he was right in everything, and if he was opposed, he went mad.

Politicians and journalists declared that Mugabe could be charming and nice, but it was also alleged that he was a loner; admittedly a hard-working man, a voracious reader and not much given to laughter, but above all – a single-minded and extremely complex person, not easily captured by conventional categories. Some even claimed they considered him to be devoid of ordinary warmth and humanity; emotionally immature, homophobic and xenophobic. The last time a Swedish friend met with him, Mugabe told him:

    When we are elected presidents, we suddenly get enormous power in accordance with the constitution that we took over from the colonial power. We can fill positions for relatives, friends and party sympathizers. We live well and have a different life than the vast majority of our citizens. But when we leave the presidential palace, we have nothing, there are no presidential pensions.

Mugabe coveted absolute power and when he obtained it, he hold on to it. Zanu came to act as yesterday’s colonial rulers. Even if power relations had changed, perceptions of power were the same. The Swedish Government did not lack documentation warning about Mugabe’s ambitions, nevertheless its conclusion was that he was Zimbabwe’s strongest leader and moreover “pro-Sweden”, accordingly Swedish aid could not be terminated, and even had to be increased.

Already in 1977, Mugabe declared that “any man who maliciously plants contradictions within our ranks will be struck by the Zanu axe” and he was even more ruthless towards his former brothers in arms – Zapu, and its leader Joshua Nkomo.

Zanu’s power base was among the Shona people, while Zapu found its strongest support among the Ndebeles in Matabeleland. Furthermore, the Cold War was reflected in the two parties’ relations to the outside world. Zapu received Soviet support, while Zanu relied on China, which wanted to undermine Soviet influence in Africa.

In early 1983, the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, a unit subordinated to the presidency, began a crackdown on dissidents in Matabeleland. Over the following two years, thousands of Ndebele and Kalanga were accused of being “Zapu-traitors”, detained, marched to “re-education camps”, tortured, raped and/or summarily executed. Although there are different estimates, the consensus of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) is that more than 20,000 people were killed.

Swedish aid workers were knowledgeable about these atrocities. Nevertheless, Swedish aid continued to be delivered to Zanu-controlled Zimbabwe. The former head of Sida’s aid office in Harare played down the events, declaring that “the civilian population in Matabeleland has been stuck between warring factions.” He advised against using aid as a means of pressure to get Mugabe to stop the mass killing.

After the 93 years old Mugabe finally was removed from power, Zimbabwe continued to spiral down the abyss, while Swedish support is uninterrupted. The country is now ruled by Emmerson Mnangagwa, who once was a close ally to Mugabe. A brutal man who in 1983 described Government opponents as “cockroaches and bugs requiring DDT to be removed.” In 1998, Mnangagwa was put in charge of Zimbabwe’s intervention in the DR Congo wars and accused of “swapping Zimbabwean soldiers’ lives for mining contracts.” Mnangagwa does not further human rights, instead his government has deepened Zimbabwe’s economic struggles, enabled endemic corruption, fuelled instability, and targeted human rights activists and journalists. It is estimated that Zimbabwe may lose up to half the value of its annual GDP of USD 21.4 billion due to corrupt economic activities. Money laundering is among the murky deals said to be carried out under Mnangagwa’s aegis. Under diplomatic cover, criminals send unaccounted cash in exchange of equivalent amounts in Zimbabwean gold, and then sell it for seemingly legitimate money.

Swedish support to Mugabe and his successor might be considered as an effort to alleviate the plight of Zimbabwe’s citizens, but it might also be interpreted as being based on simplifications of a complicated reality and furthermore relying on one man’s power. When Mugabe’s abuse of sovereignty led to massacres, they were minimalized by those of those who had bet on him and the misrule of his successor is hardly noticed.

The world is now wondering whether the majority of Russia’s population will continue to support its strong man. If Putin’s nation will be weaken or strengthened by such encouragement. The stakes are high and predictions are generally gloomy.

Main sources: Yap, Katri P. (2001). Uprooting the weeds: Power, ethnicity and violence in the Matabeleland conflict. Ph.D Thesis, Universiteit van Amsterdam and various Swedish newspaper articles.

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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