Today it is hard to believe how much hope Catholics once invested in Robert Mugabe. When he was elected prime minister of Zimbabwe in 1980, the Catholic press bubbled with excitement. Here was a man who had reputedly prayed the rosary throughout the guerrilla war to end white rule. A Jesuit education had prepared him to lead the country for the good of all Zimbabweans after the darkness of colonial rule.
But the deeper you delve into Mugabe’s biography the easier it is to understand the adulation. His mother had taken him to Mass daily as she wrestled with two family disasters: abandonment by her husband and the death of her eldest son. With the Irish Jesuit headmaster Fr Jerome O’Hea, she encouraged the young Robert to dream of future greatness. He seemed poised to fulfil that vision when he emerged from the Rhodesian Bush War ready to lead the newly independent nation.
Yet Mugabe soon began to embarrass his admirers. In 1983 the Zimbabwe National Army started to massacre civilians belonging to the minority Ndebele ethnic group. The International Association of Genocide Scholars estimates that more than 20,000 people were eventually killed. Not surprisingly, Mugabe’s most formidable clerical critic belonged to the Ndebele. Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo became progressively more outspoken about Mugabe’s misrule in the early 2000s. In 2007, he even suggested that Britain would be justified if it decided to recolonise Zimbabwe. Shortly afterwards, images of the archbishop apparently engaging in an affair were splashed across the state media. Ncube resigned and left the country. (He has since returned and is now a retreat leader who prays for three-and-a-half hours a day.)
Mugabe also saw off opposition within the Anglican Church, thanks to the maverick Bishop of Harare, Nolbert Kunonga, who split the communion with his fiercely pro-government views (for which he was eventually excommunicated). The only effective opposition left came from the Pentecostal pastor Evan Mawarire, who used social media to highlight government corruption – and was arrested five times for his efforts.
But tellingly, Mugabe’s downfall did not result from his human rights abuses or his treatment of clerical opponents, but from his uxoriousness: he had sacked his vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, to clear a path for his wife, Grace, to succeed him. He had married Grace in 1996, after the death of his immensely popular first wife, Sally. The wedding took place in a Catholic church, though Grace’s religious background is unclear. She alienated the public with her extravagance and now it is Mnangagwa, not her, who will rule post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.
Mugabe’s decline is a cautionary tale for the Catholic Church. A deep Catholic formation is, sadly, no guarantee of future righteousness. No one is immune to the temptations of power and Mugabe ultimately succumbed to them.
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