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Respected Human Rights Advocate Reflects On Zimbabwe Crisis


Zimbabwean human rights lawyer and activist, Brian Kagoro, says his homeland’s future will remain bleak unless there’s a strong attempt by a new breed of political leaders to “sacrifice political selfishness for selflessness.” Kagoro, a Fellow at Yale University in the United States, is one of Zimbabwe’s top legal minds. The constitutional lawyer conducted high-profile pro-democracy legal battles against ruling party authorities throughout the 1990s and during the first half of this decade. But he left Zimbabwe about two years ago to join an international aid agency in Nairobi. In the fourth part of a series focusing on African Fellows at Yale, Darren Taylor reports on Kagoro’s views about the country he still loves.

Through its fellowship program, which is creating a worldwide network of decision-makers in various fields – including economics, aid, business, politics and law – Yale has recognized Brian Kagoro (37) as one of only 106 “visionary” leaders.

But the lawyer isn’t as much concerned with his personal success as he is about Zimbabwe. Kagoro says not a day goes by that he isn’t saddened by what he calls the economic and social meltdown in his homeland.

And he remains an outspoken opponent of President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government. Kagoro says his combative nature has been shaped by his past.

“For most of my growing up period, the country was at war. It was a war between the African majority and the white settler minority…. I grew up largely in a family of people who were engaged in the liberation struggle,” he explains.

Kagoro was born in a farming district near Harare to parents who he says were “graduates and professionals” but were “neither rich, nor poor.” His parents were politically active and engaged in the struggle to overthrow Rhodesian leader Ian Smith’s minority regime. For this reason, Kagoro describes his childhood as “transient,” with the family regularly moving between the townships of Harare and Bulawayo.

“I was acquainted in my growing up with poverty, deprivation and the conditions that characterized black existence under colonial rule,” he reflects.

“I went through several schools, so in a sense that exposed me to Zimbabwe’s own internal cultural differences (between the Shona and Ndebele ethnic groups).”

After Zimbabwe received independence in 1980, Kagoro was enrolled at a racially integrated school.

“I also played sport as the country was struggling with integration. It affected my notion of what justice and injustice mean, of what inclusion and exclusion mean, and of what citizenship means.”

Simply sharing school benches with white children was an education in itself, says Kagoro.

“For most of the white children I went to school with, the only black people they had been accustomed to seeing were those who were janitors, nannies, or as we call them, house helps, or people who worked in their gardens. So they’d never adjusted themselves to the notion of a black as an equal. And so the struggle was always to try and establish yourself as a full human being in the eyes of your peers – whether in sport or in class.”

As he grew older – and was inspired by President Mugabe’s and the ZANU party’s fight for democracy in Zimbabwe – Kagoro began to dream of being a lawyer. As a high school student he watched in admiration as the government embarked on a “rapid” program of social development: ensuring people’s access to education and health, and constructing infrastructure in dilapidated rural areas and townships.

“So at first there was positive growth in the social sector. To that extent (President Mugabe) was cushioned from scrutiny on some of the things that we later found to be excesses,” Kagoro says.

After schooling, he enrolled in university in Harare. It was at this time, Kagoro says, that Zimbabwe “really began to change.”

“Students started demonstrating regarding the issue of corruption. Commissions were set up and many of us discovered how corrupt the (ZANU) regime was. The government’s response to the student activism was to pass pernicious legislation to curtail academic freedom and student activism,” Kagoro states.

He says his entry into legal and political opposition to the authorities – and going against a man and a party he’d previously regarded as heroes – was through Zimbabwe’s student movement, “contesting repressive legislation, which was a legacy of the colonial era designed to create a monopoly on the part of the state to tell lies and to destroy any opposition.”

Following his tertiary education in Harare, Kagoro pursued a law degree at England’s Warwick University, and graduated in the mid-1990s. He returned to Zimbabwe, convinced he could make a difference and help ensure justice for his countrymen and women.

“(I realized that) the constitution that we had embedded (and) protected gave undue power to the presidency, the executive, and in fact created an imperial presidency…. I got involved in trying to use constitutional activism, because there was some modicum of human rights within the constitution, to use that to try to reform what we saw as constitutional excesses.”

Kagoro’s life as a young lawyer, fighting constant legal battles against the state, was characterized by “stress and turmoil….” And disenchantment.

“It was the end of the honeymoon for many of us…. Robert Mugabe had ascended to power as this paragon of virtue, the embodiment of African justice, fighting for liberation and a place in the sun for black Zimbabweans, the excluded majority,” Kagoro explains.

But disillusionment set in, he says, when he and many Zimbabweans finally realized that the government had “no desire to observe rules, to respect human rights, and adhere to the constitution…. So the mask was taken off, if you like, and we saw the beast for what it was.”

Kagoro argued a number of key constitutional test cases before the Zimbabwe Supreme Court, including one in which he successfully held that labor unions had the right to strike. He says the “most exciting” legal battles he engaged in were on behalf of the students and workers. In the 1990s, the government started expelling student leaders, closing universities without prior notice and crushing demonstrations. Kagoro represented some of the dismissed students, and many of them were reinstated.

“Some of the students I represented are now in parliament, as opposition members. So those interventions were crucial for a generation of activists,” he says.

At this time, Kagoro, together with some colleagues, also founded Zimbabwe’s first independent radio station, Voice of the People, to break the government’s media monopoly. He managed the station’s pro-democracy programming until unknown assailants bombed the station in 2002.

He was not daunted, however, and helped to draft a new constitution to enshrine basic freedoms for Zimbabweans. But the document was rejected by Mr. Mugabe.

Eventually, in 2005, Kagoro was persuaded to leave his beloved Zimbabwe. He joined ActionAid, an international anti-poverty agency, as its pan-Africa policy manager: he advises the organization on strategies in 25 African countries and represents it at regional and international forums.

“We help communities fight for their rights, to build their resilience against injustice. For ActionAid, the primary cause of poverty is deprivation of rights,” Kagoro clarifies.

But the situation in Zimbabwe, he says, is never far from his thoughts.

“I think it’s an incurable disease when you have liberators degenerating into oppressors, because it reverses gains made in history, and it actually casts a very bad light on a process of liberation and on the whole notion of African leadership.”

Kagoro’s convinced that the international community bears some responsibility for the Zimbabwe tragedy.

“The denialism on the part of the USA and Britain around their contribution to the current crisis, especially with regard to promises made with regard to land reform: I think that would be critical to understanding why Mugabe has remained legitimate in the eyes of some.”

He remains intensely “worried” about his homeland’s future.

“We’re creating an entire generation that will grow up to believe that systems do not matter, institutions do not matter, laws do not matter: what matters is sheer force. And this is a malaise that I think we will live long to regret,” Kagoro warns.

He predicts that the policies employed by the present government in Zimbabwe will return to haunt it.

“Because extra-legal means of acquiring whether it be property, privilege or status will one day be used against the very same people who have authored them, in the same way that Ian Smith and the settler white colonialists [became] victims of their [land-grabbing] policies.”

He says what’s most needed in Zimbabwe today is for the country to “rediscover its humanity.”

“We may have brilliant rules and institutions, but if we don’t have compassion for our fellow human beings, then the opportunity for the darker side of humanity to take over will be irresistible. We need a combination of good leadership, good institutions and a vigilant citizenry. Of course, the economy will have to be addressed, but first the political situation.”

Yet a profound pessimism pervades Kagoro's thoughts on Zimbabwe’s immediate future: “One can foresee that if another set of people take over the country, we are not going to see greater integration (among Zimbabweans of different ethnic groups), unless there is phenomenal maturity within the leadership.”

He says what bothers him most about Zimbabwe is that the authorities seem dedicated to running the country “based on the rearview mirrors of history, and with very little focus on the needs, on the interests and rights of future generations – those who are not yet born. We are digging the country into a hole in order to settle grudges…. It is incumbent on all Zimbabweans – and in particular (black) Africans – to ensure that we arrest this tendency to self-destruct.”

By way of explanation, Kagoro says: “This does not mean that we deny that there are many injustices committed against Africa, but it also does not mean that we deny that…Africans have a responsibility for what is (happening) on their continent to author a new day. And we can only lead by force of example.”

And, in what he says is a “very small way,” that’s exactly what Kagoro’s doing.

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