Mugabe’s Honorary Degrees: Who Should Strip Who?

Published on 1st May 2007

Twenty seven years ago in Zimbabwe, no African was allowed to keep more than a herd of 6 cattle. Extras would be confiscated by government officials, in a land where cattle were king. No African was allowed to go out without a letter written by a European, specifying the date and time limit of the traveling. No African was allowed in a supermarket. African shoppers would queue for hours and shout at the assistants through a hole in the wall. No African was legible for bank facilities. Pavements were reserved for the whites as Africans walked on the road, which they shared with cars. On seeing a white person on the pavement, an African would stand aside at attention until the white person walked past. No African was allowed to vote. It was reserved for whites.

Twenty seven years after, the man at the centre of this liberation, President Robert Mugabe, is bound to be stripped of the honorary doctorate of laws degrees awarded to him by the Edinburgh University in Scotland, the United States’ University of Massachusetts and Michigan State University, for violating the rule of law, not being democratic enough and abusing human rights.

An honorary degree is awarded as a decoration for exemplary performance. According to University of Massachusetts policy, honorary degrees are awarded out to people "of great accomplishment and high ethical standards.'' Candidates are nominated and selected in a stringent process that involves strict committee review prior to approval. Honorary degrees are legal, valid degrees in every sense of the word.

For Mugabe to receive the degrees from the prestigious institutions, he must have passed the ‘test.’ A degree is given after past accomplishments. The past can not be changed. The National Agrarian University in Peru, where deposed Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori studied, taught and served as rector, stripped him of an honorary doctorate for ''ethical reasons.” The university offered him the honorary doctorate for becoming the first university graduate to assume the presidency. Did the stripping change the fact that he was the first university graduate to assume the presidency?

Obert Madondo, a Zimbabwean living in Canada says that “Robert Mugabe’s honorary degrees should stay. Those considering rescinding the degrees are simply trying to rewrite history and absolve themselves from culpability. They are engaging in a spectacular act in self-cleansing and self-exoneration. An honour is not the piece of paper it is written on. It is something intangible, a value.”

On a similar line, Michael Thelwell, professor in the University of Massachusetts Afro-American studies department notes that the University “…gave it (the degree) to the Robert Mugabe of the past, who was an inspiring and hopeful figure and a humane political leader at the time.''

"It is not like the President suffers a crisis of achievement. He has seven solid degrees which are more than enough to earn him a living and recognition. He does not lose sleep over the threats. If anything, those Western universities improved their international profile by associating themselves with the President," says Presidential spokesman and Information and Publicity Secretary George Charamba.

Some institutions award degrees to someone they want as a speaker or for long service. Others do it as a way to get money, They say, "We'll give you this degree, and you give us $10 million to build a new building." Oxford voted against giving one to Mrs Margaret Thatcher, as she cut funds for education. She revenged by raising millions for Cambridge. Fellows of Trinity College Dublin handed out degrees on the street to protest the degree given to the un-intellectual Ronald Reagan.

Politics should be divorced from academics. Those advocating for rescinding of degrees from Mugabe are setting a dangerous precedent. It will set off an avalanche of examination into America’s involvement in Iraq, Britain’s activities in Chagos Islands and the UN’s indifference during the Rwanda’s genocide among others.  Is democracy and the rule of law just a concept used by powerful nations to legitimize their domination of the poor nations when it suits their interests? How quickly human memory forgets the Zimbabwe that was twenty seven years ago, by blaming Zimbabwe for not being “democratic enough” and not “observing the rule of law!’ Who should be stripping who?

Lesson to Africa: Developed nations deal with us strategically. Even what they offer is strategically done to give them maximum gain.That is why the offer can be withdrawn when it doesn't match the intended purpose. Africa should learn the rules of the game and strategically position itself to benefit from the advances of developed nations. Africans should not be blinded by politically generated degrees. It is imperative that they excel in various fields,  move beyond “papers” and do practical things that will exonerate the continent from illiteracy, disease and poverty.

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