The news of a military coup in Zimbabwe, took me back to a morning on the 25th of January 1971.

I was studying at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. I turned on the radio and instead of the news, My Boy Lollipop by Millie was playing over and over again. Then a soldier came on and ordered everyone to stay indoors. Back to Millie.

We students saw tanks and felt a heavy silence all around the campus. Field Marshall Idi Amin, an uneducated brute trained by the British, had seized control. The country plunged into the political netherworld until he was deposed in 1979, by a guerrilla army led by the present Ugandan President Museveni.

One hopes Zimbabwe avoids that fate. Army takeovers are always disastrous for civilians, human rights and national assets. Look at Egypt today or Myanmar.

Zimbabwe has echoes of previous African coups, but each story is distinct, emphatically so. Some commentators are making facile comparisons between Amin and Mugabe; both tyrants, true, both spawned by British colonialism, but the first man was turned into an instrument of white rule, the second was a black intellectual and liberationist.

Amin, who venerated the Queen and his army bosses was used to put down freedom fighters across East Africa. Under the British, we subject people, had no democratic freedoms. After independence, Amin's proven sadism was used by the elected PM Milton Obote to silence opposition.

Mugabe fought against colonialism and was, at one time, a heroic figure from Cairo to the Cape. Right up to 1997, he was also wooed and flattered by Western powers. The Queen went to Harare in 1991 and was royally treated. There is a fantastic picture of the two of them sharing a laugh.

Bill Clinton had warm relations with the Zimbabwean president, and as late as 2015 Tony Blair was secretly approaching Mugabe (by then properly villainous) to arrange trade deals.

Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe in 1976 (L), and in 2016.

To know the man, we need to revisit his back story and the conveniently forgotten history of Rhodesia (the name of the nation before independence). The best book on both these subjects is Dinner with Mugabe: The Untold Story of a Freedom Fighter Who Became a Tyrant, by Heidi Holland, a white woman born and raised in southern Africa.

Mugabe's father abandoned his family, leaving his mother Bona to raise six children. Two older boys died, one after eating maize unfit for human consumption. Robert was the third child.

Highly intelligent and eager to learn, he was educated by Jesuit missionaries. One of them, Father O'Hea, an Irish nationalist, taught him about injustice, inequality, and racism. The boy was radicalised, but in an ethical way.

Mugabe became a teacher and carried on educating himself. It was when black lands were handed over to whites in the 1960s, that the fire in his belly began to burn. He started a democratic movement, which grew fast.

White Rhodesians – the children of the empire – witnessed the fervour with contempt and fear. The majority were racists who thought blacks were only fit to be beasts of burden. Some still hold these views.

As Mugabe's pro-democracy movement became bolder, state forces became harsher. He was imprisoned, mentally tortured and physically punished, kept in rat infested rooms, made to sleep on the concrete floor in a crowded cell. This went on for over ten years.

His late wife Sally, an activist, was also imprisoned for two years. In 1966, their toddler son died. The British and Rhodesians did not let Robert go to the funeral or be with his grieving wife. He wept. His loathing of white authority took root then.

In the build up to independence in 1980, Mugabe (rightly) spoke up about land rights for black Zimbabweans. The British government had promised to fund the transfer of areas that had simply been taken back in the bad old days. They never did.

According to Guardian writer Chris McGreal: "Margaret Thatcher's government was largely interested in protecting the property rights of the white minority." This history is now barely known or mentioned.

The end of President Mugabe should now be the beginning of a more truthful conversation about culpable white people who are also responsible for Zimbabwe's post-independence calamities.

However, Mugabe cannot shift all blame on to white people. He killed civilians, debilitated democracy, grabbed power, abused human rights and betrayed his people. He is a self-made villain.

Seven well-earned university degrees gave him no sense or wisdom, no real understanding of the responsibilities of power.

The worst thing he did was to affirm the prejudices of white Zimbabwean and other supremacists that black men are naturally beastly, unfit for democracy or high office.

For that he should never be forgiven. May the next woman or man do better. May it not be Grace Mugabe.