In my article ‘Should honorary degrees be revoked when circumstances change?’ (The Sunday Standard, June 1, 2008), I visited the issue of whether or not honorary degrees can and should be revoked once awarded.
Well, my almer mater, the University of Massachusetts (UMass) answered that question for us soon after that article appeared.
And I feel saddened on behalf of the academic fraternity of UMass that they had to be forced to revoke Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe’s honorary degree.
It was a first in the history of the academic institution.
However, it is further confirmation that Robert Mugabe is a deranged and evil man whose activities the international community should have curtailed a long time ago.
As both a former student of the University of Massachusetts at Boston/Amherst and a citizen of Zimbabwe, I feel compelled to commend my almer mater for taking this step. It was a necessary gesture as can be confirmed by activities going on in Zimbabwe today.
In 1984, after 12 years as a refugee in the USA, I left UMass Amherst in a hurry in answer to Mugabe’s call to return home and “assist in the development of our young republic”.
Today, as I write, I am once again an exiled journalist, having been granted political asylum by the government of Botswana.
The unsavoury act of revoking Mugabe’s honorary degree is not UMass’s fault nor would it be the fault of academic institutions that are most likely to do the same for many other people tomorrow.
We, as people, must not be afraid of praising ourselves, or one of us, when we have done exceptionally well.
Conversely, we, as people, should not shy away from censuring ourselves nor should we ever tire of correcting the wrongs that continue to spring up within our midst.
Granted, UMass awarded Mugabe that degree in an effort to praise an outstanding person who had, at that time, made very positive contributions to not only his country but to the international community. It was worth it.
On attaining our independence in 1980, Mugabe’s declaration of reconciliation was welcomed by everyone in and outside Zimbabwe.
The war of liberation had been long and had been one of the most brutal Africa had ever seen. Everyone was war weary, angry and with their tempers high.
Mugabe’s pledge for reconciliation was a hopeful sign that reminded everyone that the people of Zimbabwe had not been fighting a racist war but a system that they urgently had to get rid of.
Mugabe’s name was even muted for the Nobel Peace Prize.
I am proud of my ties with the University Of Massachusetts and I have fond memories of my days at both the Boston and Amherst campuses. It, therefore, became even more interesting to me when, in 1986 when I was a television reporter with the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, my former university awarded our president an honorary degree. I had hoped that my seniors would let me cover our president at my former university but things did not turn out that way.
I was, however, pleased silly that our leader had been honoured by a university that I had attended and one that taught me so much.
Although, at that very time, signs that things were getting sour and indications were there that repression was on a steady increase, these negatives were offset by the feel good national mood that was being propelled by a sound economic atmosphere and the hangover from independence euphoria.
It’s not the world’s fault that Mugabe was saying exactly the opposite of what he intended to do.
Today, we see what he is made of.
He fooled us and we gave him awards; but now he has removed the reasons why he wore those awards so it follows, therefore, that he should no longer wear those awards.
First, responding to a small internal political crisis perpetrated by a few armed contras in Zimbabwe and in what he himself termed “a moment of madness”, Mugabe went berserk and killed thousands of innocent men, women and children in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces of Zimbabwe in the early 80s.
The abuse of political opponents picked up momentum and Zimbabweans found themselves seeking refuge from their own president who wanted to do them harm.
Then the arrival on the scene of the Movement for Democratic Change brought out more of the evil that was stored in Mugabe’s psyche. People were thrown into disused mineshafts; people disappeared and their corpses turned up in thickets miles away from their homes where they lay exposed to elements and scavenging wild animals and dogs; Mugabe deliberately withheld food from families he suspected of not supporting him; he refused to have dead members of the opposition to be buried in their rural homes while, in towns, his youths would attack people gathered to bury opposition members killed by his own militia. Then there were violent farm invasions and deadly land seizures, which all made it clear that the world had misjudged Mugabe.
But too late.
The University of Massachusetts did well to disassociate itself from this rabid man who, as you read this, has gone on a vengeful spree of identifying and assaulting and killing those he suspects of not having voted in the last election in which he was the sole candidate.
UMass must be commended for taking such a bold step because, by revoking the honorary degree, the university transmitted as much a gesture as it did on awarding it.
Maybe this should awaken thoughtful people everywhere to the reality that, like heroism, awards are relative and their mandates have to be renewed regularly.
Among other requirements, the University of Massachusetts requires that “candidates for honorary degrees be persons of great accomplishment and high ethical standards who exemplify the ideals of the University of Massachusetts”.
UMass says that factors considered in awarding degrees include, among others, national or international intellectual, artistic, cultural, or public service distinction in a particular field and outstanding achievement which the University wishes to acknowledge.
But, I say, it is the responsibility of the recipient of such an honour to uphold these ideals so as to maintain his good standing with the awarding university.
On his part, Mugabe, had he seen that a university that awarded him an honorary degree had become notorious over human rights or other abuses, could have also returned the award in protest so as not to be associated with an institution that no longer espoused the ideals he stands for.
The University of Massachusetts did well and all universities and institutions that award honorary degrees must, of necessity, declare that the honorary award remains the property of the issuing institution that can be revoked should the recipient fail to uphold the ideals espoused by that university.
Like an advertiser who lets a soccer team wear its badge on the field of play, the advertiser reserves the right not to renew that team’s sponsorship to avoid his product from being associated with failure.
And two weeks ago, the Queen of England did just that. Following recommendations from her government, the Queen revoked Mugabe’s honorary knighthood.
Now the world watches in awe as the former Sir Robert goes on the rampage and underwrites a murderous spree that has now attracted the world’s intervention.
Regrettably though, many African leaders still stand by the murdering Zimbabwean president.