PETER YOUNG: The rescue and the rebuild need a strong hand at the helm

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Peter Young

So much has been written already about the catastrophe of Dorian that it is hard to find further words to describe its deadly effects and the horrors inflicted on people in Abaco and Grand Bahama. The destruction and loss of life is almost beyond belief and the extent of the suffering unimaginable. So it is heartening that the worldwide publicity has produced an extraordinarily positive response from other countries and that an international humanitarian aid operation is now under way.

Despite the naysayers - those who will criticise everyone from the Prime Minister to NEMA, the Defence Force and the Red Cross and others for not taking the right action or for not doing enough to help those in Abaco, in particular, who have lost everything - there is plenty of evidence of the superhuman efforts of so many, both officially and privately, to conduct search and rescue operations and to bring relief. They have done sterling and heroic work.

According to the UN, some 70,000 people have been affected and it remains a top priority to evacuate displaced survivors from Abaco which has been flattened and is ceasing to function. But it strikes me the offers of help, both financial and practical hands-on involvement, have come from so many varied sources – other governments, official and non-governmental organisations, aid agencies, banks and corporate bodies, Rotarians, charities and individuals -  that some sort of structure to direct and coordinate the plethora of donations and contributions needs to be put into place.

I have not seen any announcement about that, but it seems to me there should be an official coordinator on the ground who is responsible and accountable for the whole operation of cleaning-up and recovering what is left of Abaco and starting to restore and rebuild it. Presumably, this ought to be the task initially of NEMA, but it is surely unlikely that this organisation, as presently constituted, will have the resources or capacity to handle such an enormous undertaking. In the longer term it is clearly essential for the Bahamian economy as a whole to restore and rebuild to the greatest extent possible both Grand Bahama and Abaco.

At the risk of stating the obvious, strong leadership will be required as well as an effective structure. Perhaps the government will have to seek outside help from an individual who has the right qualifications and experience for such a job. It will require someone with imagination, drive and commitment who is given the authority to lead and coordinate in the short-term a mission of immense scope and vital importance to the nation. There will be a need as well to control and oversee the emergency funding and offers of cash in order to eliminate corruption. The initial task will be to recover and restore, but the harsh truth is rebuilding could take years.

Mugabe - passing of a despot

It comes as no surprise that news of the death of former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe last week at the age of 95 in Singapore, where he was apparently receiving medical treatment, has resulted in mixed reactions. He was Africa’s infamous and longest serving dictator who ruled his nation for 37 years and destroyed the lives of so many Zimbabweans during a reign of terror while almost ruining his own country.

Finally forced out of office in 2017, at the time there were also accusations that he was preparing the ground for his much younger wife, who was seen to be pulling the strings in support of her ailing husband as well as pursuing a lavish life style in the midst of a failed economy, to succeed him as president.

So, a colossus (for the wrong reasons) of Africa has finally departed the scene, and many will shed no tears. Nonetheless, Mugabe has always been hailed as a hero who played a major role in the armed struggle and bush war against white minority rule in Rhodesia and as the founding father of the newly-independent nation of Zimbabwe. But his legacy as a nation-builder in his early days was damaged irreparably, in the eyes of so many, after he turned from liberator to tyrant and a ruthless despot who persecuted his own people.

Despite this, he continued to be revered elsewhere in Africa as a towering figure in the continent’s liberation movement against white colonial rule even though no less a figure than Nelson Mandela famously criticised African leaders who, he said, “once commanded liberation armies… and despise the very people who put them in power and think it’s a privilege to be there for eternity. Everybody well knows whom I am talking about.”

The history of Mugabe’s chequered rule makes sorry reading. He came to power after the 1979 Lancaster House conference in London when Britain brokered a deal to impose black majority rule in the former colony of Southern Rhodesia. Its white minority government had proceeded in 1965 with its illegal declaration of independence after having had a degree of self-rule since 1923. It then became the unrecognised country of Rhodesia. To those like myself working on the subject in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the 1970s, it was only a matter of time before Britain succeeded in bringing this rebellion to an end because of the importance of establishing majority rule in all of its former colonies in Africa; and it was clear that the white Rhodesian leaders concerned had not taken proper account of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech in Cape Town in 1960.

Mugabe won the elections that followed the Lancaster House agreement by a landslide, though some observers accused his supporters of intimidation. At first, he preached peace, reconciliation and national unity and he pointedly asked white Zimbabweans to stay on and build a new nation. He supported a free market economy and introduced welcome reforms, and the country prospered as a result. But this did not last. He soon turned into a despot who launched a campaign of terror in order to stay in power - particularly after the switch from a British-style prime-ministership to an executive presidency and, in effect, a one-party state.

His brutal oppression of political opponents and perceived enemies – involving rigged elections, harassment and intimidation, torture, abduction and murder – is well documented, not least the tribal massacres in Matabeleland during the 1980s in which as many as 20,000 civilians died because it was seen as the tribal powerbase of his main political opponent Joshua Nkomo and his ZAPU party. In addition, the forcible eviction of white farmers from their land without compensation resulted in unspeakable violence and killing and also severely damaged the nation’s thriving agricultural sector.

The results of all this, and the social and economic turmoil that followed, turned Zimbabwe, effectively, into a failed state. It was no longer the breadbasket of Africa and its natural resources were also squandered so that, with rampant inflation and the currency severely devalued, the economy collapsed. The nation was suspended from the Commonwealth, international sanctions were imposed and Mugabe was stripped by The Queen of his honorary knighthood.

As has been said, the old adage “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” sums up the long rule of a president eventually deposed as recently as two years ago. Many ask how such a tyrant was able to cling on to power as long as he did in the face of widespread opposition among his own people.

It is claimed he suffered from a personality disorder, one feature of which prevented him from telling the difference between right and wrong; and, clearly, he relied on loyal security forces and the power of the gun to the extent that his rule has been described as the savage gangster world of Zimbabwe.

In one of the many books written about Mugabe, former British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, who presided over the Lancaster House meeting, was reported to have described him as formidable but “rather sinister” while the leader of the official opposition within Zimbabwe called him a “deranged despot”, and the former Rhodesian Prime Minister, Ian Smith, labelled him “the apostle of Satan”.

Mugabe’s horrendously long spell as the tyrannical and murderous leader of a previously thriving and successful nation surely ought to be a cautionary tale for smaller countries. Lacking the well-established checks and balances of older and larger democratic countries, they need to be on their guard constantly against the forces of corruption, the abuse of power and violation of human rights.

For those interested in Zimbabwe, I commend several books about the country by Peter Godwin who was brought up in Rhodesia in the 1960s and was conscripted to do military service there. He now lives in New York. He is an award-winning author described by the Times of London as the pre-eminent chronicler of his country’s recent tragic past. His writing is well worth a Google search.