Africa's greatest liberationist thinker, Frantz Fanon, once warned that a national leader should not "fall back into the past and become drunk on the remembrance of the epoch leading up to independence". His portrait of a once-effective leader who gradually secedes from reality and betrays his people has prophetic resonances today.
Though Mandela finally spoke out yesterday, pan-African liberationist solidarity has apparently held other leaders back from intervening on Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Mugabe and his party's addiction to power has also indulged a self-serving western appetite for spectacles of developing world despotism.
In a mutually convenient embrace of denunciation, Mugabe screams anti-colonial slogans, while British politicians piously condemn violence even as their own nation is implicated in two bloody wars. (Were the BBC to show as many close-ups of injured and dead Iraqis as they do of Mugabe's maimed victims, criticism of violence against innocents might be more evenly distributed).
In truth, both Mugabe and Britain are guilty of sidelining history in favour of skewed stories which legitimate their own position. Britain reneged on its commitments to the land reform programme claiming that there were "no links to former colonial interests" while concerning itself with the fate of white farmers.
While Africa is ostensibly central to Britain's international development agenda, the emphasis has always been on the paternalism of aid rather than acknowledging and making reparations for the economic devastation wrought by colonialism. Rarely do condemnations of land seizure, violence and intimidation extend back to the time Matabeleland came under British rule. This too was accompanied by the seizure of vast swaths of fertile land by a handful of British farmers while large numbers of Ndebele and Shona people were killed or forced into labour.
Meanwhile, Mugabe and fellow African liberationists should reacquaint themselves with the real meaning of anti-colonialism. Having resisted the anti-poor agendas of international monetary institutions and initiated necessary land reforms, Mugabe has also refused all responsibility for those many failures of his rule not reducible to the colonial past.
A party of freedom fighters has degenerated into thugs brandishing liberationist sticks to starve and brutalise an entire population. Real anti-colonialists like Gandhi and Fanon always insisted that freedom was not about replacing the white tyrant with the black one, whereas Mugabe has essentially recolonised his people. Indeed, the very techniques of suppression and intimidation deployed by the Zimbabwean leader, a knight of the British Empire until Wednesday, were taught him by the colonial masters he professes to despise. Quick to claim credit for spreading parliamentary democracy, Britain is less forthcoming about acknowledging the legacy of authoritarian rule also left behind by its empire.
Fanon died young but he would probably have had this to say: Robert Mugabe, it is time for you to return the power which the Zimbabwean people once vested in you but which they now legitimately wish to reclaim. Liberate them from the rule you have exercised for too long and without a continuing mandate. You have weakened the great tradition of African anti-colonialism which has never been about blaming the coloniser alone but has also held African leaders and elites accountable.
As for those in Britain, it is time for the "proper analysis" some commentators have called for, one which would include honest reflections on the imperial legacy rather than "shutting up" because of colonial guilt. It is the only way to deprive Mugabe of his main moral weapon. Failing this, we will all wither from the effects of what Fanon called "the tragic lie" of colonialism and its aftermath.
Priyamvada Gopal teaches postcolonial studies at Cambridge University.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008