Alexa Dalby reviews a new documentary film by a Ghanaian-British film maker that examines how and why Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is both villified as well as admired, even adored, by so many.
Talking about Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, Roy Agyemang, a Ghanaian British documentary maker, says: “Here’s a man who was nominated for a Nobel Peace prize in 1981, given a knighthood in 1994 and yet in the UK, he is a villain. I wanted to find out what was behind the headlines.”
Agyemang arrived in Zimbabwe in 2007 to interview the octogenarian. He led the first Western film crew to whom Mugabe had given unprecedented ‘access all areas’, following the banning of the BBC and CNN.
“I wanted to bring balance to the story. In the film, you hear comments unheard in the Western news media before – people talking favourably about Mugabe. I wanted to get a sense from people on the ground of to what extent does he actually have support?”
Little did Agyemang know then that three years later he would still be there and that his life would change.
Through his Zimbabwean fixer and producer, ex-banker Garikayi Mushambadope, Agyemang got his accreditation to join the presidential entourage. Mugabe seemed well disposed to him – his first wife, Sally, was Ghanaian and he had taught in Ghana. But despite Agyemang’s engaging manner, he says his English accent made those closest to Mugabe suspicious and it was two years before he got his interview.
The film that resulted, Mugabe: Villain or Hero?, vividly mixing new material with well-chosen archive footage from independence onwards, had a preview screening in London at the British Film Institute to three standing ovations and is being screened this month in international acting star Danny Glover’s Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Agyemang doggedly trailed Mugabe through the time of sanctions, an election, hyperinflation and the replacement of the Zimbabwean dollar with a basket of currencies, food shortages and both media and economic wars. So much time passed that he began to doubt if Mugabe knew a film was being made. He filmed him in public addressing ecstatic crowd at congresses and rallies, returning from Libya on Colonel Gadaffi’s private jet, welcoming Senegal’s President Wade, and at private receptions.
His footage of Mugabe is linked by comments from ministers and ex-ministers, journalists, political commentators, the chairman of the war veterans’ association, the governor of the reserve bank and ordinary citizens.
The film views Mugabe first through the prism of his land and wealth redistribution policies – the seizure of white-owned farms that triggered sanctions and suspension from the Commonwealth. Britain had reneged on the Lancaster House agreement. What is wanted, Mugabe said, is “for Britain to come out and say they were wrong. Because they knew they were wrong, they thought of how they could punish this man, this dictator Robert Mugabe.”
Speaking of the need to do the same in other countries, he became a threat to Western interests in Africa. It was, in effect, a ‘war’ for economic independence with its battles fought to retain control of Zimbabwe’s natural resources.
Relations with MDC
The second strand is Mugabe’s relationship with the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), formed in 1999. Its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, the film comments, had a confrontational approach to Mugabe, telling a televised rally: “If you don’t want to go peacefully, we will remove you violently”.
Some of Mugabe’s supporters suspected the MDC of being a Western-funded puppet, Agyemang comments, something MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa denies in the film, and some feared Tsvangirai would reverse the land policy if elected president. Tsvangirai is beaten by the police, which, in an interview, Police Commissioner Auguste Chuhuri does not deny.
The elections, in which neither side got a sufficient majority, are adjudged by independent observers to be free and fair – even the ballot boxes are translucent – but were seen by some as a missed opportunity to remove Mugabe, the film comments.
Although the elections attracted controversy and violence, a group of young white Zimbabweans is filmed complaining about the international propaganda against their country: “More people were killed in the Kenyan elections, yet there was no cry for intervention there.”
The inconclusive results necessitated a run-off. Mugabe felt let down by his party, and decided to take a new direction and turn to Zimbabwean youth to freshen up and inject energy into his new election campaign.
The film comments: “The youngsters were now guiding Robert Mugabe on how to win an election using the media.” We see him putting up with being coached by a young director through various takes to record a television election broadcast – “I’m sorry, Your Excellency, there was movement. Thank you for the eye contact. We need to see more teeth … You’re too serious!”.
After mediation by Thabo Mbeki, Mugabe was finally sworn in as President, and at last the call for the interview came.
Agyemang wanted to see how Mugabe would interact with him and hear his thoughts on alleviating poverty in Africa. It was his Zimbabwean colleague Mushambadope who asked Mugabe what turned out to be just one question – about Mugabe’s power-sharing agreement with the MDC. “They retain their policies and we have our own policies. Along the way we had to insist on definite fundamental principles being accepted. The land issue, our soil, our land, our natural resources, that the land reform programme would not be reversed and that it had to be accepted by both sides.”
But then Mugabe elegantly and nimbly turns the interview to his own overarching priorities. Economic independence and control of natural resources: “We are created with resources around us and these resources have got to be made productive. We have got to produce from these resources, they don’t produce themselves. We have got to work on the gold, mines, soil and the people who work on the soil must be trained, they must have skills.”
The changing nature of imperialism: “The forces of imperialism never accept defeat. They want to take a new form now. When we fought here, it was British colonialism we were fighting but now Britain links up with the French, Germans, Americans in order to have this bundle of imperialist force against us.”
And on the dangers of international aid, Mugabe says it is “humanitarian aid, a bit of social assistance here and there but never really any assistance to pick up our economies, get us to industrialise and therefore be economically independent. And they are clever not to give us that. If they made us economically independent, they would not have this lever, the leverage which they now have to control how we run (to their advantage)”.
He’s nostalgic for the liberation leaders of his generation.
“The days of Nkrumah, Sekou Toure and others who led real struggles are all gone. What we have are leaders who depend more on the West to run their countries rather than depend on their own people and on real cooperation and partnership within their own regions to build their economies and make them sound.”
He stands and leaves: “We are not that small in fighting for our independence.” Mugabe is presented as someone who is strong enough to stand up to Western governments and the multinationals, a kind of human levee, a bulwark of independence against neo-colonialism.
Mugabe in the flesh
Mugabe has been the unifying force in Zimbabwe but, in 32 years, failed to groom a successor, which could be his party’s undoing, the film comments. Jonathan Moyo, Minister of Information 2001–2005, comments that as Mugabe “looks around the table are not many who are willing to defend the revolution in a manner that inspires confidence in him. My assessment is that the answer he has been increasingly giving himself is, no, we are no longer together, we are no longer with the original dream of the revolution.”
Agyemang stayed on and travelled with Mugabe for another year, to Uganda, Swaziland, Ethiopia, getting a feel for modern-day Pan-Africanism. Mugabe tells him, “It was based on the right of Africa determining its own future, standing on its own and being the master of its own destiny, master of its own resources. That had been lost but I think it’s coming back.”
What was Mugabe like in the flesh? “Living history,” Agyemang says. “When you strip through the layers of security, you see a man who is quite ordinary – an old man now – the sharpest mind in the room, quite humble, very witty, who can communicate with people on different levels – old, young, black, white.”
There is a fear among Mugabe’s supporters that they may lose control of their country to neocolonialist forces intent on controlling its natural resources. “The feeling among MDC supporters was,” Agyemang says, “that the old man has got to go, but deep down he makes us proud. He’s eloquent, he’s educated us, but sometimes it’s the people around him we don’t agree with, so if he can’t control them, he has to go.”
What will Mugabe’s legacy be? An evil dictator who shattered an economy by his radical policy on land, or a hero who has liberated Africans through economic independence? Time will tell. Kwame Nkrumah was villified by the West and by some of his own people, yet 50 years later, he was chosen by BBC listeners as Africa’s man of the millennium.
The experience connected Agyemang with the continent and showed him what the African survival spirit is all about. As a woman who opened a small business comments in the film, “Any other country that had gone through what we had gone through would have experienced civil war but here we have a man who has stood up against all and all, and said ‘Zimbabwe for the Zimbabweans’.” Agyemang says, “I left Zimbabwe with more appreciation as to why Mugabe is still in power after so long.”