Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s apparent president for life and serial human rights abuser, spoke at a place known for providing platforms for such people: the United Nations.
In a 16-minute address to the 71st U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, the 92-year-old leader blamed the United States for its 16 years of “spiteful” economic sanctions, which he claimed are a major stumbling block to his nation’s development.
“As a country, we are being collectively punished for exercising the one primordial principle enshrined in the United Nations charter: that of sovereign independence. We are being punished for doing what all other nations do: that is, responding to and looking after the basic interests of our people,” he said.
“Those who have imposed these sanctions would rather have us pander to their interests at the expense of basic needs of the majority of our people,” continued the president, a former African liberation fighter who helped to free what was then called Rhodesia from British rule. He was openly referring to the United States and Great Britain as those who were punishing him and his nation.
Mugabe also called for a two-state solution for “the people of Palestine” and the seemingly endless crisis in the Middle East, and called for the United Nations to reach “full realization” of the rights of those in the Western Sahara, called “Africa’s last colony” by many African human rights observers.
The man still sounds like an African freedom fighter. Good. His opposition, who claimed that they would protest all this week at the opening of the 71st U.N. session, wish that same sense of freedom and liberation would apply to their own nation, 36 years into Mugabe’s rule.
Zimbabwe and its leader have become among Africa’s most visible human rights violators, according to this Human Rights Watch report and other sources.
From the HRW report: “Those who criticized Mugabe or his government, including human-rights defenders, civil society activists, political opponents and outspoken street vendors, were harassed, threatened, or arbitrarily arrested by police and state security agents. The authorities disparaged lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. There was no progress toward justice for past human-rights violations and political violence.”
Zimbabwe may only be one nation of 54 in Africa, but a decaying infrastructure and political instability created by a de facto one-party, strongman rule is not what Africa moving forward looks like.
Looking ahead has, paradoxically, made me look back, like the Sankofa bird. I have been curious about Mugabe because I was once in the same room with him.
In 2002, when Mugabe was under attack for seizing small, white family farms and giving them to blacks as a form of reparations, I went on a very-reduced-price black-press junket to Zimbabwe, sponsored by his government and coordinated by leaders of the Nation of Islam. As usual with such freebies and near-freebies, the government officials wanted the black media to see and print the “other side” of the nation and its leader, not just the (true) criticisms being publicly made in the majority-white mainstream media.
A full-time freelancer then (as I am now), I tried to make up for my journalistic sin by being as independent as possible. I roamed Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city, on my own; told the Nation of Islam to their faces that I would not inform them to whom I was talking (shaking like a leaf as I did so); wrote what I wanted (all the while including info about the junket high in the stories so the reader could make up his or her own mind about the article’s and my credibility); and posted stories while there. During the meeting with the president, I stayed in the back, not seeing very much, while many of the junket’s participants happily crowded around an actual African-revolutionary-turned-president.
Admittedly, I was glad to touch Africa’s soil for the first time and to meet an African leader who dared to play Robin Hood with, ahem, so-called white African land and, by doing so, not be afraid to upset the former master thieves—those evil experts who stole whole continents, nations, peoples and cultures, through colonialism and slavery, and without any significant reparations!
Away from the crowd, an opposition leader I met through a contact told me and my friend, multimedia journalist Jared Ball—a member of the black-press delegation and an independent, Pan-Africanist/leftist thinker—that the old man had just stayed on too long, and so the dream slowly died.
When I asked Ball, now an associate professor at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication, if I could use his name in this article, he texted me this response: “Sure. [O]ur interview with that activist? Or my favorite anecdote from after we met with Mugabe and I asked his minister of finance why they don’t go after the big white farms like the Oppenheimer family, [who have] a plot of land there the size of Maryland [pdf]. And he said, ‘Because they could whisper the demise of our economy.’” Ouch. So, clearly the African revolution has some (white corporate) limits.
Because I had visited that African nation, I tried to make this search for Mugabe personal by going to the United Nations on Wednesday to find the anti-Mugabe protesters on the mysterious East Side of New York City's Manhattan, an area dominated by the United Nations and its neighbor, the East River. I failed miserably to get past the dozens of NYPD security checkpoints and many, many blocked-out blocks. (President Barack Obama’s Tuesday U.N. speech, his last as president, and last weekend’s terrorist attacks in New York and New Jersey increased the local heat considerably at the close of summer.) Like some sort of deleted Harry Potter Blu-Ray DVD extra, the U.N. staff, blue badges ablaze, were magically appearing and disappearing around me, but I couldn’t see how. And I had no idea where the anti-Mugabe protesters, who claimed to be on site all week, were.
Happily assisting my escape to the Big Apple’s West Side, my Moroccan cab driver was anything but equivocal about Mugabe: “He belongs in jail.” Or in an African Union museum. But he’s not ready for either willingly. And right now that’s a problem for America and the rest of the Western powers, but it ain’t his.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.