HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Robert Mugabe took a country shining with the promise of independence and left it economically shattered and in the grip of repression — and yet Zimbabwe continued to crumble so badly after his downfall that some of its people began openly missing his nearly four-decade rule.
The newly christened Zimbabwe was the pride of southern Africa at its independence in 1980, the breadbasket of the region and the latest symbol of victory in the continent’s long fight against colonialism. Mugabe was a liberation leader who reassured some by making gestures of reconciliation toward the country’s white residents.
It didn’t take long, however, for serious problems to emerge. A power struggle with a fellow liberation leader a few years after independence led to a ghastly military operation against the Ndebele ethnic minority in the Matabeleland region, with thousands of people killed. Accountability never followed.
It still took years for the international community to grasp that Zimbabwe’s hope was curdling under Mugabe, who as president grew intolerant of dissent and often violently so. Human rights defenders, opposition figures and members of civil society were allegedly beaten and jailed or disappeared.
In time, the West shifted away in dismay, imposing sanctions the government rails against to this day and blames in part for the country’s sorry economic state. Some bitter Zimbabweans would point to years of alleged mismanagement and corruption instead.
It is Zimbabwe’s shattered economy, in fact, that now shows how painfully far the country continues to fall.
Even residents of the capital, Harare, have been stunned to find themselves in some of the worst conditions of their lives: Queuing in lines in the middle of the night to draw water at wells because infrastructure has largely collapsed. Queuing at shops for basics such as bread, whose prices have jumped several times this year alone. Queuing at the passport office for weeks in the hopes of escaping the country and its misery. Millions have left Zimbabwe over the years.
“We were promised Canaan,” one Harare resident, Dadirai Tsvakai, told The Associated Press earlier this year during an interview lit by a mobile phone during yet another blackout in the city. “But this is hell.”
The desperation has exploded in protests more than once this year, leading to violent crackdowns by security forces in which abuses such as indiscriminate killings and rapes of civilians are alleged.
When Mugabe fell in late 2017, to the cheers of thousands in the streets of the capital who could hardly believe the news, he was succeeded by his former deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa, who for a brief time basked in global expectations that Zimbabwe’s recovery had begun.
The new president spoke of reforms and of reaching out to the international community, but the shadow of his past as Mugabe’s enforcer was long.
Less than a year after Mnangagwa took power, his government’s response to protests after a peaceful presidential election — the first without Mugabe on the ballot — showed that the machinery of his predecessor’s long rule remained in place.
The military spilled into the Harare streets, shooting six people dead. A chill swept across the country once again, while an opposition court challenge to the election results was defeated.
“Mugabe’s departure in 2017 signaled the end of both an era and an error, but it gave birth to another error,” Harare-based political analyst Alexander Rusero said Friday. “Mnangagwa’s government was supposed to be a new dawn but whether we are talking about human rights or the economy, it is as if Mugabe never left. The only change has been for the worse.”
At least Mugabe had kept soldiers off the streets, some Zimbabweans grumbled. Others in recent months have felt their empty pockets and recalled better days, though still terrible, when the country at least had its own feeble currency , no matter how many zeroes it carried in wild hyperinflation.
“Life was not that good, but it was never this bad,” Harare resident Silas Marongo said Friday, as the country reeled from the death of a 95-year-old man who some had thought would never release his grip on the country, much less life itself.
Anna reported from Kabul, Afghanistan.