Robert Mugabe: Peter Godwin's The Fear tries to explain how he has remained in power so long.

A wartime lexicon.
April 11 2011 10:35 AM

Africa's Worst Dictator

How has Robert Mugabe been able to rule Zimbabwe for so long?

Robert Mugabe. Click image to expand.
Robert Mugabe

Now that the South African political leadership has—after years of shameful silence and even complicity— declined to continue its open-ended indulgence of Robert Mugabe, it becomes possible to envisage a time when Zimbabwe will be free of the hideous regime of one man and one-party rule. Other contributing factors, such as Mugabe's age and the inspiring influence of events at the other end of Africa, can be listed. But the democratic opposition in Zimbabwe predates the "Arab spring" by several years and must now count in its own right as one of the world's most stubborn and brave movements.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

Peter Godwin's most recent book, The Fear, updates the continuing story of popular resistance. In my opinion it's not quite as powerful as his earlier book, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, but it does convey the awful immediate reality of a state where official lawlessness and cruelty are the norm. It also maps the symptoms of regime-decay: If only for nakedly opportunist reasons, there are increasing numbers of people among Mugabe's own clientele who are looking to a future when the near-nonagenarian (he is 87) will no longer be with us.


How did things descend to this nightmare level? Robert Mugabe did not come to power through a coup. He emerged as the leader of a serious guerrilla army, who then fought and won a British-supervised election. For his first several years in office, he practiced a policy of reconciliation (at least with the white population, if not with his tribal rivals in the Matabeleland province). During the years of the revolution, I met Mugabe several times and am still ashamed of how generally favorably I wrote him up. But he was impressive then, both as soldier and politician and survivor of long-term political imprisonment, and when I noticed the cold and ruthless side of his personality I suppose I tended to write it down as a function of his arduous formation. Also, in those days the reactionary white settlers would console themselves with a culture of ugly rumors (such as Mugabe's supposed syphilis and mental degeneration), which I was determined not to gratify.

The syphilis story can't have been true or Mugabe would not be the annoyingly long-lived man he has become. But something did go horribly wrong, and among those who remember those years there is an unending parlor game about exactly what that something was. Mugabe, some people say, was never the same after the death of his charming Ghanaian-born wife, Sally. Not only that, but the second wife was the sort who likes shopping sprees and private jets and different palaces for summer and winter. (Thank goodness for this class of women, by the way: They have helped discredit many a dictator.)

Another early bad symptom was Mugabe's morbid fascination with, and hatred of, homosexuality. He suddenly decided that Zimbabwe was being honeycombed with sodomy and began to display symptoms of acute paranoia. Macabre as this was, it hardly explains his subsequent decision to destroy his country's agricultural infrastructure by turning it into a spoils system for party loyalists, or his decision to send Zimbabwean troops on looting expeditions into Congo.

Writing on all this some years ago, Peter Godwin opted for the view that Mugabe wasn't explicable by any change in circumstances or personality. He had had the heart and soul of a tyrant all along, and simply waited until he could give the tendency an unfettered expression. Even though I have a quasi-psychological theory of my own—that Mugabe became corroded by jealousy of the adulation heaped on Nelson Mandela—I now think that this is almost certainly right. In the Sino-Soviet split that divided African nationalists in the 1960s and 1970s (with the ANC of South Africa, for example, clearly favoring the Soviet Union) Mugabe was not just pro-Chinese. He was pro-North Korean. He enlisted Kim Il Sung to train his notorious Praetorian Guard, the so-called "Fifth Brigade," and to design the gruesome monument to those who fell in the war of liberation. Some of his white-liberal apologists used to argue that Mugabe couldn't really be a believing Stalinist because he was such a devoted Roman Catholic. But this consideration—while it might help explain his obsession with sexual deviance—might weigh on the opposite scale as well. Catholics can be extremely authoritarian, and Mugabe has, in addition, done very well from his Vatican connection. He broke the ban on his traveling to Europe by visiting the pope as an honored guest. The church unfrocked Pius Ncube, the outspokenly anti-Mugabe bishop of Bulawayo, for apparently having an affair with his (female) secretary. Festooned and bemerded with far graver sins, Mugabe remains a Roman Catholic in good standing, and it's impossible to imagine what he would now have to do to earn himself excommunication.

If you want a catalog of those sins, turn to Godwin's books. But don't read them just for outrage at the terrible offense to humanity. They also describe a new sort of Zimbabwean, emancipated from racial and tribal feeling by a long common struggle against a man who doesn't scruple to employ racial and tribal demagoguery. In those old days of arguing with the white settlers, one became used to their endless jeering refrain: "Majority rule will mean one man, one vote—one time!" They couldn't have been more wrong. Since gaining independence three decades ago, the Zimbabwean people have braved every kind of intimidation and repression to go on registering their votes. They have made dogged use of the courts and the press, which continue to function in a partial way, to uphold pluralism and dissent. Mugabe has lost important votes in Parliament and—last time—his electoral majority in the country at large. Only the undisguised use of force and the wholesale use of corruption have kept his party in office. One day, the civic resistance to this, which was often looked-down upon by people considering themselves revolutionary, will earn the esteem and recognition it deserves.


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