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The Mass Media

Dictator Robert Mugabe Still Honored by UMass

Mugabe at UMass in 1986
Mugabe at UMass in 1986

When current presidential hopeful Barack Obama received an honorary degree at UMass Boston last year for “advancing and protecting the interests of the less fortunate [and] adherence to a political credo that transcends both party and race,” many people were excited to hear the charismatic politician give his opinions on leadership and race in America. Millions of Americans and Bay Staters are now thrilled that Obama, the only sitting black senator, has thrown his hat in the ring and is striving to become the leader of our nation.

Exactly 20 years earlier, another black politician received an honorary degree from UMass for his efforts “to establish racial harmony between blacks and whites.” Only one year after accepting his degree he became president of his native country, Zimbabwe. He was an early critic of apartheid and had fought for years for the independence of African nations.

Today, in 2007, Robert Mugabe, recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Laws in 1986 from the University of Massachusetts, is known as one of the most oppressive, violent and tyrannical dictators of our time, responsible for the death of countless Zimbabwe citizens and the primary actor in the economic collapse and devastation of a nation.

The stark contrast between the violent rhetoric and actions of the African dictator versus the hope and vision of the American senator is unequivocal in the speeches they gave during the ceremonies.

“We also advocate war against-armed struggle-against South Africa,” Robert Mugabe told a crowd of students and faculty while receiving his degree. His program for ending racial prejudice in Africa called for violence and harsh economic sanctions against those he perceived as racist.

Senator Obama’s speech in 2006 also called for an end to racism, but in contrast to Mugabe, he hopes to achieve this through love and mutual understanding. “Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world-one that makes you understand that your obligations to others extend beyond people who look like you and act like you and live in your neighborhood,” he said.

Mugabe’s penchant for violence was either unnoticed or unimportant to the board of trustees who decided to award him with the honor. In 2002 a BBC special reported that, in the years 1982 through 1985, Mugabe consolidated power by committing mass murders. Giving an award to a man who in the future would become a dictator is unfortunate, but giving an award to a man who had already executed tens of thousands in order to stifle political opposition is morally reprehensible.

UMass President Jack Wilson has acknowledged that stripping Mugabe of his degree is not out of the question, but almost no real action has been taken in the 20 years since the degree was given. For years, Mugabe has been a well-known human rights abuser, yet nothing has been done. Last semester, a Zimbabwean student at UMass Boston started a petition that call for the revocation of the degree, but as no action has been taken, pressure was clearly insufficient.

Last year, Mugabe ranked fourth on Parade Magazine’s list of the world’s worst dictators, only behind Omar al-Bashir of Sundan, Kim Jong-il of North Korea and Than Shwe of Burma-a dictator known for his use of child soldiers and forced labor camps.

Mugabe has never been known for his dedication to democracy or freedoms, but his disrespect for rule of law and decency was especially evident in 2000 when he confiscated farms from white farmers and redistributed them to political allies with little or no agricultural experience. Zimbabwe’s agricultural industry, which it depends on heavily, quickly fell into dissary.

More than two-thirds of Zimbabwe’s work force have jobs in the agricultural sector, primarily as wage laborers, and with the collapse of white-owned farms, more than 400,000 of the poorest Zimbabweans lost their jobs.

Zimbabwe’s economy has been driven to shambles by poor government mismanagement over the years. Lagging tax revenue and outrageous government spending has forced Mugabe’s government to print excess amounts of money to pay off their debts. Zimbabwe’s unprovoked war of agression against the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998-2002 hit them particularly hard.

The International Monetary Fund has described Zimbabwe’s economic policies as “off-track” and “mis-guided.” Support from the IMF has been suspended (again) due to payments that have come late, and sometimes not at all. Two weeks ago, the IMF expressed “deep concern” over Zimbabwe’s deterorating economy. Mugabe did not seem to worried and threw a massive party for his 80th birthday in which thousands attended.

By U.S. standards the inflation rate in Zimbabwe has always been off the charts, but it did remain nearly manageable until around the year 2000. The official annual inflation rate rose from 32 percent in 1998, to 133 percent in 2004 and to 585 percent in 2005. The IMF reported 1,216.0 percent inflation for 2006 and projects a 4,278.8 percent inflation rate for 2007.

In 1983, one US dollar could be exchanged for about one Zimbabwe dollar. Today’s exchange rate cannot be published in a weekly newspaper because it changes so dramatically every day. In mid-February, one dollar could buy about Z$5,000. By Feb. 26, one dollar was worth about Z$7,000. All this is even after reevaluating their currency in 2006 by knocking off three zeros.

Mugabe, who has two bachelors degrees and one masters degree in economics responded to hyperinflation last month by declaring all price increases illegal.

Economists are not convinced that this is going to have the effects that Mugabe hopes for. Price inflation is caused by an increase in the money supply. This occurs only when the government literally or figurative speeds up the printing presses and churns out more cash. According to classical macroeconomic theory, buyers and sellers cannot have a lasting impact on inflation of domestic prices without having more money in the system.

Zimbabwe currently suffers from an employment rate of 80 percent. Eighty percent of the country lives below the poverty line. The richest 10 percent of the country consume more than 40 percent of all goods there. Gross Domestic Product in Zimbabwe is shrinking, and the current public debt is 1.08 times the GDP. Mugabe has blamed the economic problems of his country on Western powers and imperialism.

During the week of Mugabe’s birthday celebrations, he responded to opposition party rallies by declaring political demonstrations illegal and arresting opposition party leaders. He also postponed presidential elections that would have taken place in 2008 until 2010. The UN described his presidential victory in 2002 as “rigged.”

Mugabe is known for throwing political enemies in jail, framing them for outrageous crimes or creating arbitrary laws that he knows enemies violate. Mugabe’s attempt to frame opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai for an assassination attempt even inspired a Hollywood production: “The Interpreter,” starring Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman.

In 2005, Mugabe led a bold “Clean up the Filth” campaign. He forcibly removed 700,000 people from their homes, destroying their property and businesses. He claimed that it was a campaign of urban renewal that sought to clean up the worst parts of the country. The areas that people were removed from were known strongholds of opposition.

Opinions of Mugabe continue to be mixed. In the 1960s, Zimbabwe was under the racist and undemocratic rule of white leaders. The country, then known as Rhodesia, was not given independence from the UK because of its maltreatment of its racial majority. Although whites represented only five percent of the population, they controlled the government, were 95 percent of voters and by law owned 50 percent of the land. Mugabe was an important leader in the struggle to overthrow the shameful racist white government that controlled the region.

After decades of violence and negotiations, the new nation, Zimbabwe, was given independence, blacks were granted political and social freedoms, and Robert Mugabe was named prime minister. Despite his current unpopularity in Zimbabwe, Africa and the entire world, he was voted number three on a list of the “100 Greatest Africans” by readers of the monthly magazine “The New African.”

Mugabe’s list of degrees include a BA and BSc from Fort Hare, a BAdm from University of South Africa by distance learning and a BEd, LLB, LL.M, and MSs from University of London by distance education. He received honorary degrees from Michigan State University, University of Edinburgh and the University of Zimbabwe. Mugabe also famously quipped in a 1998 speech threatening trade unionists that he had “many degrees in violence.”

The fact that a despot like Robert Mugabe has an honorary degree from the University of Massachusetts devalues the prestige of this honor for all who posses it. Students should question whether inspirational leaders like Senator Obama should be lumped into the same category as Mugabe by the Board of Trustees. Students at both Michigan State University and University of Edinburgh have been calling for revocation of his degrees since the mid-90s.

About the Contributor
Taylor Fife served as the  for The Mass Media the following years: 2006-2007