Zimbabwe's Banana left legacy of disgrace

Opinion: It would be remiss of me not to note the passing last week of the Rev Canaan Banana, and not just because he has a …

Opinion: It would be remiss of me not to note the passing last week of the Rev Canaan Banana, and not just because he has a funny name, writes Mark Steyn.

It is, of course, deplorable to make cheap gags about a fellow because of his handle - I seem to remember a Monty Python thing from years ago announcing that "Mr Arthur Penis is changing his name by deed poll to Mr Art Penis". But, when the Rev Banana became the first president of Zimbabwe in 1980, the citizenry seemed reluctant to accord His Excellency the dignity his office required and two years later a law was passed forbidding jokes about his name.

The Rev Banana became president because, at the Lancaster House conference in London, the British forced a Westminster-style constitution on the new country, splitting the roles of head of government and head of state. Robert Mugabe became prime minister, and Mugabe's party put up the Rev Banana as its choice for president.

It is said that Lord Carrington and his colleagues went along with the idea, in part, because it seemed an excellent jest on the recalcitrant white Rhodesians to transform their rebel colony into the first literal Banana republic.


Until this sudden eminence, the Rev Banana was an obscure underling in Mugabe's ZANU-PF movement and a conventional proponent of liberation theology: he rewrote the Lord's Prayer as a call to resist white supremacy, and declared that "when I see a guerilla, I see Jesus Christ". Each to his own.

Alas, when his guerillas saw fellow Christians, they didn't always recognise them as kindred spirits. In 1978, in the Vumba mountains, Mugabe and Banana's plucky "freedom fighters" slaughtered nine white missionaries, after raping the women and their four children - one a month old and another found with a boot imprint on her shattered skull.

In 1987, Mr Mugabe revised Zimbabwe's constitution, eased the Rev Banana out of his job, and became an executive president of dictatorial bent, setting the country on a course to its present state of economic ruin and mass starvation. The Rev Banana, meanwhile, having earned a place in his nation's history books as a symbol of racial liberation, went on to earn himself a footnote as a somewhat more controversial symbol of sexual liberation.

In 1997, Jefta Dube, a former bodyguard of Banana's, was on trial for murder and pleaded in mitigation that he'd only committed the crime after the victim repeatedly taunted Dube as "Banana's wife". He claimed that, at State House one night, the President had slipped a sleeping draught into his drink. Mr Dube came round to find himself on a duvet naked from the waist down, with a smiling President Banana hovering over him.

"While you were sleeping," said the President, "we helped ourselves" - not the words anyone wants to wake up to. He forced his bodyguard into a sexual relationship that lasted three years.

The Rev Banana denied the allegations but, within weeks several cooks, gardeners, policemen, air force officers, scores of students at the University of Zimbabwe, and most of the President's football team came forward with similar stories.

In Zimbabwe, homosexuality is punishable by 10 years in gaol, and Mr Mugabe is famously antipathetic to the practice. You'll recall that he's denounced Tony Blair as a "gay gangster" leading "the gay government of the gay United gay Kingdom".

This was at a time when its first openly gay Secretary of State was being received with his partner at Buckingham Palace and another less openly gay Secretary of State was in the papers for an ill-starred encounter with a young lad on Clapham Common, and the unbiased observer might well, like Mr Mugabe, have been struck by the British cabinet's lack of visible heterosexuals. But, eschewing the convention whereby former colonies are allowed to abuse the imperial power to their hearts' content, Mr Blair took umbrage.

In such a climate, it's hardly surprising President Banana found himself on trial for sodomy.

Even the 1982 law forbidding jokes about the Presidential name couldn't help him: who needs gags when you've got headlines such as "Man raped by Banana" (the Herald), "Banana forced officer to have sex" (the Guardian) and "Banana appeals against sodomy conviction" (the BBC)?

Mr Mugabe has accused Britain of a plot to impose homosexuality throughout the Commonwealth. "We as chiefs should fight against western practices," he said. "British homosexuals are worse than dogs and pigs."

The whole business was apparently hitherto unknown in Zimbabwe. His line on gayness is basically: yes, we have no Bananas. Yet it was assumed by almost everyone that Mr Mugabe, for all his visceral hostility to homosexuality, must have been aware of what President Banana was up to and there was much speculation as to why he turned a blind eye to it.

Shortly before sentencing, the disgraced leader got wind of a rumour that Mugabe was about to have him killed and so Banana split: he fled to South Africa in a false beard. Nelson Mandela persuaded him to return home to gaol and disgrace. His wife went to live with her daughter in London, and, by the time of his death last Monday, the man who'd received his seals of office from the Prince of Wales at the birth of a new nation was recalled only as a pathetic joke figure.

In a poignant way, President Banana's reductio ad absurdum from black revolutionary to convicted sodomite mirrored his country's transformation in the eyes of the west's biens pensants.

Although Mr Mugabe's views on le vice anglais are pretty standard among African leaders, and granted that Tony Blair does have a vaguely camp air, it probably wasn't a good idea to draw attention to it at the Commonwealth Conference. Preoccupied with internal affairs, the Zimbabwean leader neglected to keep au courant with changing fashions in the preferred progressive causes in western drawing rooms, where today a homophobe is as unacceptable as a kaffir-bashing racist in the 1970s. The Guardian, which backed Mr Mugabe in the Zimbabwean elections that brought him to power and greeted his victory with the headline "The clearest and best outcome", was mighty disillusioned to discover they'd been promoting Norman Tebbit in blackface: "From freedom fighter to oppressor" ran a more recent headline in the paper.

In fact, Mr Mugabe is much as he's always been.

While Britain and other former colonial powers turned a blind eye to Africa, the likes of Mugabe looted their governments' treasuries, their countries' resources, their peoples' wealth and western taxpayers' bountiful "development" funds.

You still hear African leaders demanding to know why the US won't set up a "Marshall plan for Africa", which conveniently overlooks the fact that since 1960 the west has sunk the cost of the Marshall plan many times over into the dark continent with nothing to show for it other than a few extra zeroes on the Swiss bank balances of the dictators-for-life.

While the west snoozed complacently, the Afro-Marxist kleptocrats ransacked a continent. Or to borrow President Banana's post-coital catchphrase: "While you were sleeping, we helped ourselves."