Mugabe vs Lee Kuan Yew

Jan Raath compares the record of the Zimbabwean president and the late Singaporean leader, over their respective three decades in office

HARARE - The funeral on Sunday this week (March 29) of 91-year-old Lee Kuan Yew, the widely respected former prime minister of Singapore, drew most of Asia's leaders as well as luminaries that included Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger.

Surprisingly absent was another 91-year-old who normally never misses out on a chance to mingle with the mighty. But then, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president, was there two weeks ago. It could be said he qualifies for official residence in the tiny island state as he is there so often, for medical treatment.

There are similarities between the two men, apart from their age. Both led their countries to independence from British colonial rule. Each qualified for being among the world's longest serving heads of government, Lee for 31 years, and Mugabe for 35, but still going.

Both favour dynastic rule, though Mugabe has not admitted it openly. Lee installed two successive sons as prime minister after he stood down in 1990 (but stayed on in the cabinet until 2011). Mugabe's recent political manoeuvering indicates that initially he had chosen his wife, Grace. But she is reported to be seriously ill with cancer, and his daughter, Bona, 24, is appearing a likely candidate.

And there the likenesses end. Lee became prime minister of Singapore in 1959 when the 700 sq km island was a malaria-infested swamp populated by some of east Asia's worst slums, and, the only reason for its existence, a British navy port. It has no natural resources.

He was a man of grand vision, indefatigable determination and the nous to be able to make it work. He saw corruption and lack of education as the primary causes of the country's backwardness. He delivered a massive drive to develop high quality education, and demolished the slums to erect comfortable, well-built government housing.

It was accompanied by a total war against corruption, sleaze and dirt. Soon the country was being administered by a highly efficient, punctual and incorruptible civil service.

 Simultaneously he opened the country to foreign investment, making it keenly attractive to international finance corporations looking for bases in the region. Investment and tourists poured in, funding Lee's programme.

The starkest dissimilarities between the two men are demonstrated by World Bank figures that show if income per head in Singapore was 100 in 1960, after 30 years under Lee it would have been 654. If Zimbabwe's had been 100 at independence in 1980, after 30 years of Mugabe it would have slumped to 63.

Mugabe in 1980 found himself the leader of a country that was the most developed and industrialised in Africa, after South Africa, with the Zimbabwe dollar on par with the British pound, an efficient railway system, a good, well-maintained network of roads and a body of probably the most successful commercial farmers that produced huge export surpluses. Tanzania's president then, Julius Nyerere, told Mugabe not to mess it up, because he was inheriting "the jewel of Africa."

He messed it up, spectacularly.  He began three years later by butchering some 20,000 Ndebele civilians in response to a small insurgency. It took eight years before corruption kicked in. A commission of inquiry found that ministers had cheated on a special vehicle allowance.  They were several of them were found guilty of fraud. Mugabe pardoned them.

Not long after that, bigwigs in the ruling party discovered how to con a special fund for compensation for injury incurred during the guerrilla war that preceded independence. Among the most egregious cases, Reward Marufu, the brother of the president's new wife, Grace, claimed 95 percent disability for "anxiety" and was awarded US$68,500. Mugabe did nothing.

The next was a combined, national onslaught against white commercial farmers - which cost a million farm workers and their families their livelihoods and homes - and against the nascent MDC party which for the first time since independence saw Mugabe's ZANU(PF) under threat of defeat in elections.

The country then went into economic collapse with world-record inflation, and is now into the throes of deflation.

Lee was a dictator. He said he had "never believed democracy brings progress," so free association, freedom of expression, independent trade unions were permitted only very marginally.  But his autocratic tendencies were distinctly benign.

Mugabe's dictatorship, on the other hand, has been brutal, as he demonstrated in five violent, rigged elections since 2000.

Where Lee provided decent homes for Singaporeans, Mugabe carried out Operation Murambatsvina (sweep out the filth) in 2005 which destroyed the homes of 700,000 people, because he thought they were plotting to rise against him.

And most poignantly, when Lee's wife, Kwa Geok Choo, was dying in 2010, he nursed her and read poetry to her. When Mugabe's first wife, Sally, was dying of kidney disease in 1993, Mugabe was conducting an adulterous affair with Grace, then one of his secretaries.

Lee came from a Confucian background with strong belief in the value of education, discipline and respect for authority, which informed his vision, and was to make his country, people and government successful and internationally respected.

Mugabe is an economic ignoramus and has had no vision beyond maintaining his personal hold on power. Last week, the day before Lee's funeral, he declared: "Our founding fathers gave us a vision which remains immutable: the vision of a free Africa."

This "freedom" has nothing to do with oppression by a dictator who brutalises his subjects, but it shows a discredited old political commissar still locked into the turgid writings of Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda when the struggle against colonialism was at its height 50 years ago.

  "The beast of imperialism is back on the prowl, in heat again. It seeks re-conquest, re-occupation of our continent under a different guise," Mugabe growled.

This, he declared, was "resource colonialism," where Western companies were "wrestling Africa's wealth from the mouths of her starving children." He warned: "Let us not give it up for filthy lucre." 

From the first days of his rule, Mugabe was deeply mistrustful of foreign investors (except the Chinese and Russians who he thinks are "comrades"). Zimbabwe is at or near the bottom of every international business survey on destinations for investment. It is one of the most difficult countries in the world to open a business. Agreements are torn up and laws changed at will.

One of the worst factors is the indigenisation policy in terms of which white- or foreign-owned businesses take the risk of sinking capital into a company in Zimbabwe and then are obliged to relinquish 51 percent controlling shares to a black Zimbabwean. The central bank reported late last year that foreign investment for the first half of the year was a paltry US$67 million, a third of what it was the same period in 2013.

Paul Kagame, Africa's best known example of a "benign dictator," has transformed Rwanda's economy and dramatically improved the lives of Rwandans, by courting foreign capital, like Lee. Singapore and places like Hong Kong have shown that natural resources are irrelevant to economic development.

Mugabe, cocooned in the luxury of presidential largesse, has no clue of the importance of "filthy lucre." Zimbabwean author Chenjerai Hove has remarked: "Economic collapse in Africa does not happen until the larder in State House is empty."

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