What happened to Mugabe?
Monday, 07 April 2008 12:23
IT WAS his mincing manner that surprised me most, writes Paul Moorcraft in Business Day, Johannesburg.
When I first interviewed Robert Mugabe in January 1980, it seemed odd in a tough guerrilla chieftain. And his articulate English was slightly contrived; almost perfect BBC. His intelligence impressed me the most, however. For four years I had interviewed many black and white political leaders in the dying Rhodesia. Mugabe was head and shoulders above them all.
Rhodesian propaganda had portrayed this Catholic-trained Marxist as a bloodthirsty latter-day Hitler. Whites were preparing for the Beit Bridge 500, the dash for the South African border, when Mugabe won the election in March 1980. Instead, the vast majority stayed, swayed by Mugabe’s clarion call for reconciliation.
Mugabe was the popular son of the masses. Only he could bring peace, and that is why the majority of Shonas voted for him. Nevertheless, his party still engaged in massive electoral intimidation.
Prefiguring by 14 years the almost saint-like quality of Nelson Mandela’s magnanimity, the new Zimbabwean president started well. He appointed a ministry of all the talents, including Rhodesian Front stalwarts. As a former teacher, Mugabe set about reforming the country’s education system, with impressive results. Later, he helped to end the civil war in Mozambique.
Had he anticipated Mandela’s style by remaining in office for just one term, Mugabe’s legacy would have been that of a world-famous statesman. Instead, in Desmond Tutu’s phrase, he became the caricature of an African despot. So what went wrong?
He may be bad, but he has never been mad. The idea that absolute power over 28 years, plus senility, caused him eventually to become demented is not convincing. Mugabe’s sober and ruthless determination has always been a mark of his character. He outflanked the original Zanu leader, Ndabaningi Sithole, then imposed his leadership during the final dramatic three years of the liberation war. Opponents were crushed.
He has displayed a logical consistency in transforming his country. The white settlers seized the land illegally in the 1890s, and thus inspired the first Chimurenga, or uprising. The second Chimurenga of 1965-79 was based partly on the historical grievances of the original resistance movements.
After taking power, Mugabe waged a third Chimurenga against all his perceived enemies: first the Ndebele, then trade unionists who supported the opposition parties, and finally white farmers and businessmen. Along the way he silenced the churches, media, judiciary, social activists and especially the gay and lesbian community.
His greatest crime was committed early in his dictatorship: the Gukurahundi in Matabeleland in the 1980s. Estimates vary, but at least 10000 Ndebeles were killed and many more were raped, tortured and abducted. It is true that South African intelligence backed a few hundred dissidents in the apartheid war of regional destabilisation, but the main reason for the devastation wrought by Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade was to eradicate the power base of Joshua Nkomo’s rival Zapu party.
Eventually, Nkomo had to sue for peace, and accept Mugabe’s one-party state. The Zanu (PF) leader stayed in power by bribing his cronies, particularly in the security services. In many African states, the military, rather than the ballot box, had been the main instrument for change of leadership. This was not possible in Zimbabwe because of a creeping coup. The generals, police chiefs and the Central Intelligence Organisation had been absorbed into the inner core of the dictatorship. They would stand and fall with their boss. This suited Mugabe’s leadership style.
The president doesn’t like being thwarted. Mugabe faced his first loss of face when he was defeated in a referendum on a draft constitution in 2000.
Blaming whites for supporting the opposition, he encouraged his thugs to seize white commercial farms, even though many farmers had been given legal land rights after 1980. This accelerated the economic meltdown. A few thousand white farmers were ejected, but hundreds of thousands of farm workers were also put out of work. Agriculture collapsed. Famine meant Mugabe’s henchmen could control the countryside by centralising the distribution of food.
The cities turned to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe’s solution? Bulldoze the urban shantytowns. More than 700000 city dwellers lost their homes or livelihoods.
Farming had been destroyed. So had tourism. The final straw was to force foreign companies, especially mining, to give 51% control to indigenous black Zimbabweans, effectively a last handout to Mugabe’s cronies.
Under Mugabe, life expectancy has been halved; unemployment reached 80%; nearly all the whites and more than 3-million blacks fled the country. Zimbabwe became a rogue state, which threatened to implode the whole region.
His last throw was simply to print money. The inevitable result was hyperinflation. The Commonwealth turned its back, largely because of human rights abuses. And the international financial organisations deserted him because of chronic financial mismanagement and broken pledges.
Some African leaders stood by him out of a misplaced sense of solidarity, including President Thabo Mbeki, who held the economic levers. Then Jacob Zuma’s ascendancy spawned a change in the African National Congress. Tsvangirai became a much more attractive option.
The South African role in Mugabe’s long farewell is still a mystery, yet to unfold: no news yet on any deal for Mugabe’s retirement. The MDC has said it wants to follow the South African model of reconciliation, but there may be precious little truth, or justice.
Destroying one’s country with lunatic policies is not a criminal offence, but crimes against humanity, especially the genocide in Matabeleland, are different. Liberia’s Charles Taylor ended up in The Hague, but that is a special case. In theory, the International Criminal Court could try Mugabe for crimes committed after 2002, in this case the destruction of urban settlements in 2005.
The endgame will be political, not legal. China’s influence in Harare has to be finessed, and SA might have to provide rock-solid amnesties, probably in-country, not abroad, for Mugabe and his top military and police enforcers.
It could be a golden — but brief — hour for possible reconstruction. The United Nations and the International Monetary Fund will promise much, but do little. All hopes for reconstruction efforts are predicated on Mugabe’s exit.
If events turn violent, as recent clampdowns indicate, perhaps the Commonwealth, as it did in 1980, might just provide a core British-officered monitoring force. The African Union is overstretched in Darfur. The Southern African Development Community is too complicit in Mugabe’s follies.
It will take decades to rebuild the three main pillars of the economy: agriculture, tourism and mining. Is Tsvangirai capable of rebuilding from ground zero?
Mugabe had always been a master manipulator. And stubborn. Now, short of massive rigging and naked use of the army and militias, he cannot win if he has to enter a second presidential round. Worse, he could declare martial law and rule by decree.
He could have saved something of his reputation had he conceded early and gone into a dignified retirement. Instead, he has created massive uncertainty for a transition, which could yet become a second Kenya. Mugabe’s rule destroyed Zimbabwe. The manner of his departure might yet disgrace the whole continent.
Prof Moorcraft is the director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis. His new book on conflict in Zimbabwe, The Rhodesian War, is published this month.