Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe
By Peter Godwin
Little, Brown, 384 pages
Today, the full title of the British edition of Peter Godwin’s latest effort, The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe, seems sanguine, to say the least. Three years after the events recounted in this book, the 87-year-old Mugabe is still Zimbabwe’s president, making him the world’s oldest leader and one of its longest serving. (Perhaps the dictator’s staying power is why the subtitle of the American edition was changed to the grimmer Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe.) But during Zimbabwe’s 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections, Godwin returned to his native country expecting to “dance on Robert Mugabe’s political grave”—and not without reason. While the despot and his ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), had waged a campaign of violence and intimidation against the opposition, Mugabe appeared to have attained a singular achievement in the realm of dictatorial incompetence: losing a rigged election.
Yet through a combination of diplomatic skill, a keen ability to capitalize on anticolonial grievance, and outright violence, Mugabe retained his post as president by forming a coalition government with the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. Exactly how Mugabe managed this feat is the subject of this gripping, despairing, but ultimately hopeful book.
It is easy to characterize Mugabe as a standard-issue African big man, but the reality of his position and politics is more complicated. An observant Catholic trained as a teacher, he earned a series of master’s degrees while serving time in the prisons of Rhodesia, as the white-ruled rebel British colony was then called, for antigovernment activity. Mugabe’s contemporary tirades against the West, and Britain in particular, belie a deep and abiding affection for its traditions (he was knighted in 1994). Though he evidently enjoys the riches that come with being a dictator, he is motivated primarily by a deep ideological determination; he is not in the tyrant business for the money or personal vanity. Mugabe is, Godwin writes, “an intellectual, a spiteful African Robespierre.” He genuinely believes that he is at the forefront of the battle against racist neocolonialism and that, if he were removed from power, his lifelong struggle would have been for naught. The forces trying to unseat him today—composed not only of the white farmers whose land he stole, but also the vast majority of Zimbabwe’s black citizens—are no different, in his eyes, than the white supremacists who jailed him for 14 years. Because he views any resistance to his rule as the product of imperialist plots, “his reaction to opposition has invariably been a violent one, inherent in his DNA,” Godwin writes.
A longtime observer of Zimbabwean politics, Godwin has his own explanations for why Mugabe has remained in power for so long. But a reporter by training, he prefers to limit his political analysis and let the voices of ordinary Zimbabweans tell the country’s story. And although the title of this book may be sanguine, its content is sanguinary. One simply gets lost keeping track of the characters upon whom Mugabe has visited the full brunt of his rage. These people and their families physically represent, in Godwin’s vivid words, “the stigmata of elections.” One story should suffice here. Visiting a hospital full of victims of election-related violence, Godwin encounters a severly beaten 29-year-old mother who was severely beaten and had both arms broken. Because she is unnable to breast-feed her own daughter, a nurse holds the infant to the woman’s bosom and looks on, weeping. It is, Godwin writes, “one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.”
There is no telling how many people have died because of Mugabe’s policies. There is a considered strategy, however, to the seemingly indiscriminate violence. Rather than carry out a full-on campaign of widespread murder against any and all opponents, Mugabe has opted for a policy of death by attrition. Mass starvation kicked in not long after he ordered the seizure of white farms—the policy that created the downward spiral from which it will take the country decades to fully recover. Torturing opposition supporters nearly to death instead of killing them allows victims to serve as “human billboards” for the consequences of opposition.
An estimated three million people have fled the country in the past 10 years. Meanwhile, the country’s farmers’ organization estimates that a half million former farm employees and their families (most of them black) have died as a result of the land seizures, due to starvation and disease. In response to Mugabe’s unremitting violence, the democratic opposition faces a quandary. “If we took up AKs,” MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai tells Godwin, “the UN would rush in here, but we are penalized for being peaceful.” The party’s constitution forbids members from “engaging in acts of violence including inciting party members to commit acts of violence against opponents within and outside the party.”
Such belief in the power of non-violent resistance may seem naïve, particularly given that Mugabe remains in power 12 years after the MDC was founded in 1999. But it speaks to the remarkable courage and humanity of regular Zimbabweans, who have managed to do the unthinkable in African politics: rise above race. Mugabe’s agenda—allegedly enacted on behalf of oppressed blacks—has had the unintended consequence of uniting blacks and whites in opposition to his rule. Zimbabweans, Godwin argues, have moved beyond their tortured history in righteous struggle against a common enemy, a man who would rather destroy his country with racially inspired hate than concede power.
And the country being destroyed is, unlike its leader, far from ignoble. The author introduces us to Roy Bennett, a white farmer and former officer in the Rhodesian Police, who, even more than Tsvangirai, serves as Mugabe’s polar opposite. Bennett, a prominent opposition political figure, speaks the native Shona language so fluently that “his race is undetectable over the phone.” He is a white man with “black populist appeal, yet a Rhodesian backstory.” Thus Bennett “exposes the lie of what Mugabe pretends to be.” Godwin is moved when Bennett, imprisoned in a stinking, overcrowded jail on fabricated charges of terrorism, takes the can of insect repellent Godwin brought him, gets down on his hands and knees, and sprays the feet of his black co-prisoners.
In the long term, how will that transcendent brand of unity fare against a dictatorship’s material brute force? The popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world have certainly given Mugabe reason to worry. In February, Zimbabwean authorities arrested 46 people for watching television news coverage of events in Tunisia, accusing them of organizing a plot to overthrow the Zimbabwean government. Such repression—the likes of which have increased in recent months as ZANU-PF prepares for what will undoubtedly be yet another violent election—demonstrates how far-reaching is the regime’s paranoia. Indeed, so encompassing is that fear, Godwin posits, that it has overtaken the country’s titular ruler, himself a victim of the terror he unleashed. Legions of Mugabe’s political cronies, generals, and other assorted thugs and gangsters have grown rich off the regime’s ill-gotten gains and depend on the status quo for their privileged existence. Godwin interviews one Catholic bishop who suggests that Mugabe is merely a “civilian front for the generals” and that “a military dictatorship” is running the country. “He is tortured as much as his people, by the life he has to live,” this bishop says.
That last bit of psychoanalysis is overly generous. Mugabe, despite rumors that he wanted to step down in 2008, has shown publicly no compunction whatsoever about the nature or effects of his rule. But the extensiveness of the regime’s moral rot, and the vast array of people implicated in the perpetuation of injustice, suggest that Zimbabwe’s problems will not end with the abdication or death of one man. The prospect of Mugabe’s political grave is certainly welcome. But let no one dance too soon.