New Film | Mugabe – Villain Or Hero? – The NewAfrican Magazine

Posted March 12, 2013 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Featured ~ 11,161 views


Roy Agyemang, a British-born Ghanaian, has become the first “Western” film director to have close access to Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe. His film, five years in the making and controversially titled Mugabe: Villain or Hero?, was premiered on 15 December 2012 at the British Film Institute in the heart of London where it received a prolonged standing ovation at the end of the screening. Here, Roy Agyemang tells how he got to make the film, and how he saw Zimbabwe and its longstanding leader while working on the project.

Having spent the last five years making a film on Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, many of my friends said I was crazy to have a preview screening at the British Film Institute in London, a notoriously tough audience. My Zimbabwean colleague, Garikayi Mushambadope, warned that the anti-Mugabe campaigners would pelt me with eggs and flour for the title alone, Mugabe: Villain or Hero?

Thankfully I came away unscathed. I was honoured to get three standing ovations from a very mixed audience.

I was in Zimbabwe between 2007 and 2010 when the economic catastrophe was at its height. Western governments were rubbing their hands with glee, as Mugabe’s grip on power appeared to be loosening. I thought I was going to witness the ousting of one of Africa’s longest serving leaders. Mugabe survived but only just.

In 2007, live on British television, the Archbishop of York, Ugandan Bishop John Sentamu, cut his collar up with scissors to protest against Mugabe being in power. He said he would only replace his collar if Mugabe were removed. Mugabe’s reputation in the Western media as an “evil madman” is well documented. Based on the information available and from what I could see prior to arriving in Zimbabwe, the case against Mugabe was overwhelming.

But what aroused my curiosity was the fact that Mugabe had not been eliminated by the West and still remained in power, which is no mean feat, especially during the trigger-happy era of George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

Was there more to Mugabe and Zimbabwe than what was being shown on our television screens? What was the true extent of Mugabe’s support inside the country?

The question of how Mugabe has remained in power is of vital importance to anyone trying to understand his country’s past, and its future direction.

As the first “Western” filmmaker (though born to Ghanaian parents) to gain access to Robert Mugabe, I wanted to understand the answer. Together with my UK-based Zimbabwean producer, Garikayi Mushambadope, we worked our way through the corridors of power, probing the cultural, economic, and historical factors at the heart of the “Zimbabwean crisis”.

We travelled to all corners of the country with President Mugabe, trying to build his trust in the hope that he would give us a rare interview. It took almost two years to get the first interview. I ended up travelling as part of his delegation on foreign trips, which was even a surprise to the Zimbabwe Foreign Ministry that handled my British passport. The fact that I stayed in the country and lived through the hardships like the rest of Zimbabweans seemed to help, also being of Ghanaian heritage worked in my favour. The Zimbabwean authorities were very suspicious of a film crew coming from the UK. They felt Western governments were using the media to induce regime change in Zimbabwe. That made my work incredibly difficult.

The security personnel did monitor us from time to time but most of our harassment came from ordinary Zimbabweans who were fed up with the negative portrayal of their country in the Western media.

I lived in Harare where many of my friends were supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party. I would sit in their living rooms watching the international news, and they would literally berate the television screen, dismayed at the reports. One of the friends turned to me and said: “Why do they portray us as animals, we are not like that.” Another said: “I am in favour of the demonisation of Mugabe, but the Western media have gone too far, to the detriment of my country.”

These comments were not exclusive to black Zimbabweans. I remember relaxing by a lake in Mazowe with young white Zimbabweans. They were equally perturbed by the negative reports on their country: “We in Zimbabwe will never become united if the likes of CNN, BBC and Sky continue to broadcast the worst of our country,” they said.

The disturbing news reports on Zimbabwe almost put an end to the production of my film. My executive producer, Neville Hendricks, who was financing the project, ordered me to come back to London because he did not want to be responsible for my death.

I managed to explain to him that although the situation in the country was dire, the biggest killer was hyperinflation. Not once did I see people running around displaying machetes or holding AK47 rifles. There were pockets of violence that surrounded the presidential run-off election in June 2008 but this was not a Kenya 2007 situation where over 1,300 people were killed in post-election violence in December 2007 and January 2008.

As the only “Western film crew” that was legally allowed to roam freely in the country, we had a huge responsibility to report accurately what was actually going on. It makes for fun viewing the Western news reports and juxtaposing what was happening on the ground to what was being said by the British and American governments.

Those that believe Mugabe’s survival in power is merely down to his authoritarian rule are mistaken. There is no doubt the former schoolteacher is a disciplinarian. But that is not the sole reason he has clung on. Despite everything, a significant number of Zimbabweans support his pro-African policies. It took Mugabe 20 years to deliver on a promise he made during the war for liberation to redistribute land from the wealthy white minority, to the black majority. Mugabe is aware that he will not live forever, so he is wasting no time ensuring black Zimbabweans get a fair deal for their natural resources with the introduction of an Indigenisation Law.

“Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans,” I heard him say. “It cannot be for the British, it cannot be for the Americans, if you want to be friends with us, fine. You stand there and I stand here, we shake hands but remember, the gold in my country is mine.”

The relationship between Africa and the West in the last 50 years has seen little in terms of development. Mugabe believes his people are fighting a war for economic independence in Africa, a war far greater than the one for political independence.

“They are clever not to give us that aid,” he said of the West, when he finally gave us that interview. “If they gave us aid to make us economically independent, then they would not have this lever, the leverage which they now have to control how we run our things.”

I would often rigorously quiz Mugabe’s supporters as to why they would support a man that has presided over one of the worst economies in history. Each time they would say “it is not the old man’s fault”. They believed the country was being punished for Mugabe’s policy of taking land from “white people”.

Since Zimbabwe’s land redistribution policy began in 2000, Western governments have not supported the newly resettled black farmers, but have chosen instead to impose sanctions on the country.

Western hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed in Zimbabwe though. At the time Mugabe received his knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 1994, on the recommendation of then Prime Minister Sir John Major, there was no meaningful land reform taking place in Zimbabwe, and Mugabe was accused by some of his own people of protecting white farmers.

Worse still, some years earlier in the 1980s, Mugabe authorised the country’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to put down armed dissidents who were threatening to destabilise Zimbabwe. The operation was codenamed Gukurahundi. Atrocities were committed. Mugabe later acknowledged that it was “a moment of madness”.

Yet, as these atrocities were being committed by the Fifth Brigade, Western institutions were rewarding Mugabe with honorary doctorates. So now that he has redressed a colonial imbalance, Mugabe’s supporters would argue, his former friends have become his enemies.

Being on the road with Mugabe, I saw little of the myth of a “dictator” disconnected from his people. Quite the opposite, Mugabe has managed to hang onto power because of his support amongst the grassroots.

Before going to Zimbabwe, I had an image of a “dictator” sitting on his throne barking orders and unable to take criticism. I was surprised to see a man who was not afraid to get his suit dirty and be amongst the people. I was in many meetings where villagers openly criticised Mugabe for food shortages and lack of development in their area. Listening to stories of people going hungry would have affected the president: his legacy was being eroded. But in typical Mugabe style, he was able to rally his support, blaming the suffering on the sanctions imposed by the West. “Your sanctions will in future demand reciprocation from us,” he would cry about the West. “When we reciprocate, we will hit your companies here.”

Once you get through the security personnel and government ministers, what you see is a very smartly dressed, dignified gentleman. He was witty, charming and always had the sharpest mind in the room. There were times I thought Mugabe was napping in meetings, but he had me fooled. I was in many forums where he would sit with other African presidents, and he was always one step ahead of them.

To this day, it amazes me how Zimbabweans managed to survive the most challenging period since their independence. I call them magicians. A young businesswoman said to me: “If any other country had experienced what we went through, there would have been a civil war.” The greatest weapon Mugabe has given his people is education.

My experience in Zimbabwe goes beyond just making this unprecedented film. I learned a lot about myself and what it means to be an African. Thus I have reconnected with Ghana in a way I have never done so before.

I had a conversation with President Mugabe, which left a lasting legacy with me. He called me by my surname – Agyemang – and said to me: “I understand Ghana has found themselves a bit of oil.” And I replied: “Yes, Your Excellency. Ghana should be pumping oil for the next 150 years.”

To which he replied: “What are you, as a British-born Ghanaian, going to do to help develop or benefit from that resource?” I was silent. Soon after that conversation, I went to Ghana and purchased a bit of land, which one day I hope to develop, and from which Ghanaians and my children will benefit. But now I understand the feeling of empowerment. It is strange to say that I owe this to Mugabe. And it is strange to say that so many of his Zimbabwean and African compatriots feel something similar. But it is, perhaps, part of why he has held on for so long. And it is part of why he shows no sign of going away.

Interestingly, after a radio interview with the BBC recently, the producer asked me if I was afraid that the British establishment would not want my film to be screened in Britain and elsewhere in the West. If I thought getting to Mugabe was difficult, distributing this film will be an even greater challenge.

(Readers can see a trailer of Mugabe: Villain or Hero? at:

Source – NewAfrican Magazine

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Ugandan Diaspora News Team

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One Comment


    I think the true appreciation of Mugabe will come when he dies.
    O how I wish he can be appreciated now.

    God bless Mugabe with long life

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