The world awoke to the sad news on Sept. 6 that Robert Mugabe, the former president of Zimbabwe, had died at the age of 95. The sad aspect of that news was not Mugabe’s actual death. Rather, it was the fact that he died both a free man and a rich man in a luxury hospital in Singapore, when by any standard of justice he should have met his end while serving a lengthy prison sentence for his terrible crimes against humanity.
Mugabe was a prominent member of the club of dictatorships that spread throughout much of the developing world in the decades after World War II. Like many African dictators, he launched his career by fighting for a just cause: the removal of the white minority regime in what was then known as Rhodesia, a country that in 1965 unilaterally declared independence from the United Kingdom in order to delay the advent of black-majority rule.
As a political prisoner and guerilla leader during those years of white minority rule that were reminiscent of apartheid in neighboring South Africa, the dynamic Mugabe was seen by many as force for hope in Africa. But any illusions on that score were quickly laid to rest after he came to power in 1980.
Mugabe remained in office until 2017, when he was finally removed in a coup, but even then he wasn’t arrested or sent for trial. Instead, he received the finest medical care for his various ailments. His death in those gilded circumstances is yet another example of the post-Holocaust pledge of “Never Again!” sounding uncomfortably hollow.
Consider Mugabe’s record, after all. His first victims during a dictatorship that was to last for the next 37 years were the Ndebele and Kalanga peoples, whom he suspected of mass political disloyalty. “We will kill those snakes among us; we will smash them completely,” Mugabe pledged, as he ushered in the “Gukurahundi,” or “People’s Storm”—an ostensible campaign against dissidents that escalated into genocidal mass murder in the northern territory of Matabeleland in 1983-84.
Mugabe continued in this vein over the next three decades, imposing famine on his people, engaging in brutal slum clearance programs that left 2.4 million people homeless, and routinely punishing the country with instruments that ranged from eye-watering hyperinflation to brutal pro-government thugs meting out discipline in the streets.
The response of the outside world was painfully slow and, in the event, rather feeble. It wasn’t until 2002 that the European Union imposed a regime of travel restrictions and sanctions on Mugabe and his lieutenants, but the dictator was still spotted at U.N. gatherings in New York and Rome, as meetings at international organizations were conveniently exempted from the ban. In 2015, perhaps as a gift to mark Mugabe’s 90th birthday, the E.U. lifted most of these restrictions in recognition of his status as chairman of the African Union.
When it came to sections of the Western left and the world’s authoritarian regimes, Mugabe was lauded as an anti-imperialist hero. Had Western nations gathered to bring his regime down, he would doubtless have become an icon of the anti-war movement in the West. Among his allies would have been Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the British Labour Party, and stalwart defender of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Slobodan Milošević in Serbia—two dictators whose overthrow was kindled by their military confrontations with Western powers and who, in the interim, enjoyed Corbyn’s solidarity in his capacity as chair of the “Stop the War Coalition.”
As is customary on this political territory, Mugabe’s foreign policy was stridently pro-Palestinian. Among his close friends on the international stage was the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, whose coterie of murderous African dictators also included Idi Amin in Uganda and Moammar Qaddafi in Libya. After Arafat visited Mugabe in May 2001, a few months after launching a new intifada against Israel, he praised the dictator’s empathy with “how much we have suffered as Israel destroys our cities, homes and villages.” Just four years later, Mugabe showed the world the true face of destruction when he unleashed “Operation Murambatsvina” (the literal translation is “Operation Clear Out Trash”) against millions of slum-dwellers. A U.N. report at the time noted that Mugabe had acted “in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering.” Even more poignantly, given the political colors Mugabe wore, the same reported noted that his offensive against human beings he had written off as “trash” had been “based on a set of colonial-era laws and policies that were used as a tool of segregation and social exclusion.”
That Robert Mugabe died without ever having to answer for his crimes will come as a boost to the world’s remaining tyrannies, from the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Mugabe was an enthusiastic backer of the “Red-Green” alliance forged between the Islamists in Iran and the Socialists in Venezuela, correctly understanding that these alignments were a necessary counter not just to American and Western power, but also to Western ideas about liberty and democracy. For Mugabe—as for Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran—the liberty of the individual to think, speak, pray, write and organize freely was a petty anachronism, infinitely less important than the “sovereignty of the nation,” the “solidarity of the peoples,” and similar slogans adopted by repressive regimes in the name of human rights. After a lifetime of denying freedom to others, Mugabe stubbornly retained his own until the end.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.