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Zimbabwean President Mugabe Faces Rebukes, Retraction of Honorary Degrees

Zimbabwean President Mugabe Faces Rebukes, Retraction of Honorary Degrees

By Ibram Rogers

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe — once honored as one of the world’s leading human rights activists by universities in the United States and England — is now being reprimanded in those countries as one of the world’s worst human rights villains.

On June 6, the Edinburgh University of Scotland decided to withdraw the honorary degree it had awarded Mugabe in 1984. On June 21, University of Massachusetts trustees voted not to strip Mugabe of his degree, but to officially rebuke him and to consider creating a process for revoking honorary degrees.

At Michigan State University, which awarded an honorary degree to Mugabe in 1990, there have been calls to revoke Mugabe’s degree. MSU’s office of the vice president for research and graduate studies, which houses the honorary degree committee, is looking into “why it was given in the first place, and was it given for the right reasons,” says Terry Denbow, a university spokesperson, adding that the office does not have a timetable for reaching a decision.

In addition, MSU has never revoked an honorary degree, and there is no formal process for doing so, Denbow says. Neither has UMass. This is the first time in the 425-year history of Edinburgh that it has stripped somebody of one.

The 83-year-old Mugabe, who has presided over Zimbabwe since it gained its independence from Great Britain in 1980, has not lost any sleep over the actions of the three universities, his spokesman told
The Herald, a Zimbabwean newspaper.

“Honorary degrees are exactly that, an unsolicited honor from the giver,” George Charamba says. “If anything, those Western universities improved their international profile by associating themselves with
the president.”

Mugabe has faced mounting criticism in recent years as Zimbabwe’s once thriving economy has descended into economic hardship. Once considered the breadbasket of southern Africa, more than 2.1 million people in the country are expected to face food shortages by the third quarter of this year, according to a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Mugabe has also been assailed for his policy of seizing land from White farmers and redistributing it among landless Blacks. But some Mugabe supporters argue that the country’s economic deterioration is a result of American and British foreign policies.

“The dispossession of White land, in conjunction with the vitriolic British and American propaganda and economic sanctions, has led to the flight of investment capital,” Dida Halake wrote in a column in Zimbabwe’s Daily Observer.

While Mugabe’s detractors have also accused him of using a secret police force to torture and kill political opponents, Halake says Mugabe has merely disabled the “political apparatus across Zimbabwe through intimidation, arrests and other forms of suppression.”

Officials at Edinburgh chose to rescind Mugabe’s honorary degree after investigating the alleged murder of 20,000 people in Matabeleland between 1982 and 1984.

The university’s official announcement read: “After examining evidence relating to the situation in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s — evidence that was not available to the university at the time the degree was conferred — the group recommended that the degree should be withdrawn.”

Edinburgh set up the investigation after its student association began calling for the revocation in November 2005. Students were also the catalyst for UMass’s rebuke of Mugabe, who received his honorary degree at the Amherst campus in October of 1986. At that ceremony, the university had described Mugabe as a defender of human rights.

“Your gentle firmness in the face of anger, and your intellectual approach to matters which inflame the emotions of others, are hallmarks of your quiet integrity,” read the program. “We salute you for your enduring and effective translation of a moral ethic into a strong, popular voice for freedom.”

After reviewing a student petition, UMass’s undergraduate student senate unanimously passed a request to retract Mugabe’s degree.

“Mugabe does not represent what the degree stands for when he received it in 1986,” says Shauna Murray, a graduate student at UMass-Boston and one of the organizers of the petition. “Someone who has committed so many different atrocities and has suppressed opposition parties and leaders and things like that — we do not understand how the university could continue to honor someone like that.” 

At MSU, there has been a series of letters, e-mails and calls in the wake of UMass’s student movement, says Denbow. He notes that MSU’s reason for awarding the degree was quite different from those of the other two universities.

In 1990, MSU and the University of Zimbabwe (with Mugabe as chancellor) had the most sizeable U.S./African linkage, with more than 600 faculty and student exchanges. The degree was given “in recognition of that relationship,” Denbow says.

UMass and MSU could both move in the future to revoke Mugabe’s degrees. But Mugabe, who has earned seven degrees on his own, appears unlikely to be affected.

“He’s a well-read president, better than their [Tony] Blair and [George] Bush,” Zimbabwe’s deputy information minister Bright Matonga told Reuters recently.

“They can keep their degrees, and we’ll keep our Zimbabwe.”

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