Damian Thomson has kindly shared on Twitter a remarkable description of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s teetering tyrant, from Matthew Parris:

“All I have said about Robert Mugabe is that he is a deep and complex man and there is much to be proud of in his record, as well as some terrible questions to answer.”

Those with a Times subscription can read the full piece. It’s short, and rooted in Parris’ (who was raised and educated in Rhodesia) personal connection to the country.

It’s not wrong, either, to read the other side of the very one-sided image many of us have of the country. In fact, it reads much like my attempts to sell friends and readers on the many charms and virtues of Northern Ireland, which are too often obscured behind images of the Troubles.

But to argue that there is “much to be proud of” in this man’s record? And that these must be weighed not against crimes but against questions? 

Even if your heart doesn’t bleed for the white Zimbabweans persecuted by his government, Mugabe’s crimes are beyond question. Within a few years of taking office the Zanu-PF regime unleashed the ‘Gukuruhundi’, an orchestrated mass murder in which over 20,000 people were killed.

So bad were the killings, in fact, that fellow rebel leader Joshua Nkomo would declare Mugabe’s regime worse than Smith’s.

Then there are the slum clearances, which have apparently cost over 700,000 people their home or livelihood, and the sheer scale of human suffering implied by the fact that Zimbabwe’s average life expectancy fell from 62 in 1990 to just 36 in 2006. Here’s a brief portrait of misrule so catastrophic campaigners are pushing for it to be classed as crimes against humanity:

“Physicians for Human Rights… found that the Mugabe regime destroyed the country’s healthcare system and pursued policies that ruined what had been a vibrant agriculture, depriving all but a tiny elite of proper nutrition, water, and a sustainable livelihood. One result has been a cholera epidemic and the spread of other diseases.”

So much for the “terrible questions”. The real question is: what has Mugabe got to be proud of?

None of the crimes for which he is infamous were necessary to toppling Ian Smith’s racist government. In fact, by the time Zanu-PF came to power it was already on the way out. The final government of the unrecognised Rhodesian state (by then named ‘Zimbabwe Rhodesia’) was a mixed-race administration led by the non-violent Abel Muzorewa.

His government, and the peaceful-if-gradual path not taken it represented, is little remembered now. But it flatters Mugabe to believe that he was the only alternative to the Rhodesian Front, let alone the best. What good did he do that could not have been achieved, through better means, by better men?

That’s the question which sifts heroes from villains, and which apologists for the latter either fail to consider or actively avoid. It seems unlikely, in this ailing despot’s case, that there is very much to the answer.