Robert Mugabe, the dictator who impoverished and brutalized a nation across 37 years, was buried in a Zimbabwe state funeral at a largely empty stadium. There were several thousand among the 60,000 seats. Visiting heads of state praised him while his own countrymen stayed away.
Those heads of state paying homage to Mugabe as African liberation hero included the presidents of Kenya and South Africa. They returned home after the funeral to more prosperous and freer nations than Zimbabwe, thanks to their own post colonial leaders who ruled more wisely and justly than Mugabe.
More authentically, a Mugabe relative recalled that after his 2017 overthrow by Zimbabwe’s current president, who attended the funeral: “He was a sad man. A sad, sad, sad man. It was a hard and excruciating journey.” No doubt. Mugabe died earlier this month at age 95 seeking medical care in distant Singapore. Such care, thanks to his own disastrous policies, likely is unavailable in Zimbabwe.
One quote from PBS perhaps summarized current Zimbabwean attitudes towards their late dictator:
“I didn’t like him, but I still wanted to attend just to see for myself that he is gone … but kombis (minivan taxis) want $3.50 just to get to the stadium,” said Amos Siduna, waiting in line at a bank to get cash, which is in short supply. “That’s too much money for me just to go and say ‘bye bye’ to a corpse. Mugabe’s corpse. No.”
Despite widespread hostility mixed with indifference, the Zimbabwean government is preparing a mausoleum for Mugabe as the founding father. It’s interesting how dictators get such oversized monuments when great democratic leaders are often buried in simple graves. George Washington has a modest tomb, and the tombstones for FDR, Churchill and de Gaulle are more modest still. The gravesite for Nelson Mandela, in a family plot, seems to be modest, though it’s not yet open to the public. Mugabe could have been a Mandela for Zimbabwe, but instead of reconciliation he chose statism, brutality and murder.
Greater and more lethal dictators than Mugabe have received far grander death palaces than he will, of course. Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung and Ayatollah Khomeini have mawkish mausoleums sustained by repressive regimes that need to perpetuate their respective cults. Democratic Spain is now removing Franco from his mausoleum.
Often it seems that murderous dictators escape earthly justice. Mugabe lived to be old but at least he was overthrown and isolated. Fidel Castro died old and in power, as did Mao, and North Korea’s father and son dictators. The regimes they founded endure and must require homage to retain their own legitimacy. But would freer societies, with open conversation about the crimes of their founding rulers, venerate these despots?
Of course, many tyrants do face earthly justice: Ceasescu, Milosovic, Gaddafi, Saddam, Mussolini. Others enjoy cushy retirements after their overthrow: Idi Amin in Saudi Arabia and Mengistu still alive and in exile in Zimbabwe, thanks to Mugabe. Baby Doc Duvalier lived on the French Riviera until he faced inconclusive justice in Haiti, to which he returned of his own volition. Bokassa faced a similar fate in his Central African Republic, although at least he served some prison time, a small price to pay for his thousands of slain victims.
Will North Korea’s current dictator ever face justice, or Iran’s theocrats? Will Assad or Putin? If not in this world, then in the next, where they will face an Authority above themselves. But sometimes, even often, there is some vindication in this world. Mugabe was at least removed from power. He never was tried, and he lived lavishly, but as his relative at the funeral noted, he suffered. What could be worse for a dictator than to lose power, which is their lifeblood?
That so few attended Mugabe’s funeral, leaving a mostly empty stadium in front of visiting heads of state and global media, was itself a form of judgment upon a ruler who once could compel crowds to laud him. How he would have hated the embarrassment.
Mugabe was raised Catholic but turned Marxist. He presumably forgot Who is ultimately sovereign. The Persian king dethroned by God in the Book of Daniel could have reminded him:
And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the most High, and I praised and honored Him that liveth for ever, Whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation: And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest thou?
When after repentance the king was restored to power, he rejoiced and warned:
Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all Whose works are truth, and His ways judgment: and those that walk in pride He is able to abase.
Prideful tyrants, in God’s own time, will be abased, and their victims vindicated, for none, ultimately, including Mugabe et al, can stay His hand.