Warlord-In-Chief: A Portrait Of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe

His political career began as a struggle against racist oppression and continued until achieving his country's independence. But the newly re-elected leader, 89, is epitomized by violence and corruption.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe
Jean-Philippe Rémy

Has Robert Mugabe ever known peace? At 89 and just re-elected to a new term, his latest fight was with the Zimbabwean opposition, which he crushed on election day July 31. His defeated opponent, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, described the political event as a “sham” marked by ghost votes and lack of ballot access for over one million people. Mugabe, meanwhile, raises his middle finger to Western countries, whose protests and criticisms he is more than happy to ignore.

On a tactical level, it has been a success. If the Movement for Democratic Change, Tsvangirai’s party, asks its militants to stay home to avoid repression while it awaits an appeal of the results, Mugabe will have won the way a civil war is won: without mercy, without any consideration for harm, as if it were a matter of life and death. It was only a presidential election. With Mugabe, it seems, politics is always an extension of war.

Is his aim to defend his people or his throne? Perhaps both. He will be 90 next year, and his weaknesses are increasingly noticeable. He has always carefully avoided tobacco and alcohol. His limousines, his new palace, his young wife’s vulgar luxury no longer weigh on his conscience. But he cannot win the fight against aging.

Was he ever going to give up and face a dull and boring retirement? Before the general election, he told Tsvangirai that he might — and was no doubt delighted to tease this man he despises. At Mugabe's age, a man doesn't suddenly change his program, which includes not only governing Zimbabwe, but also fighting for it, even if that means using methods that aren't noble. And the fighting has long been his comfort, his cocoon. War in a time of peace has a name: violence. But Mugabe's life has been a long one, and this alone doesn't fairly characterize him.

Agitator in the making

Robert Mugabe was born in 1924 in Southern Rhodesia, a British colony that eventually became Zimbabwe. Men and women of that generation witnessed and endured incredible racial brutality. There is no way to know exactly what words may have taunted little Robert, who was a solitary bookworm and a momma’s boy. His mother actually dreamed that he'd become a priest. The family lived with Catholic missionaries, so it would have been a good opportunity in a tragic era. An Irish priest, who appreciated the young boy’s sharp wit, became his mentor and a sort of substitute father. He told him how the Irish fought for and won their own independence, by force, a few years earlier, against the British.

Mugabe left for the University of Fort Hare, South Africa"s first college for blacks and the alma mater of some key African National Congress (ANC) members, including Nelson Mandela. He graduated, discovered Marxism and became a teacher in Ghana, where, in 1957, the first African independence of the decolonization era triumphed.

Back in Rhodesia, he became one of the agitators, and then leaders, of the guerillas demanding an end to white-minority rule. He became a political prisoner in 1963. While jailed, he studied relentlessly and took correspondence courses in economics and law from London University, from which he graduated. All told, he has seven degrees, which testify to his curiosity and thirst for knowledge. He even joked about it, adding ironically that he was also “a graduate in violence.”

Imprisonment bred leadership

After more than 10 years in jail, he traveld to neighboring Mozambique and took control of the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). During wartime, he learned to hate the foreign media, especially the British, whose headlines often referred to him as the “Black Terrorist” — the same expression used to describe Nelson Mandela – and who adopted the white Rhodesians’ characterization of him as a “Black Hitler.” The expression had legs. It persisted so long, in fact, that in 2003 he used it in his own way during a speech: “If fighting for my people makes me a Hitler, then let me be 10 times a Hitler.”

We think he is a brute because he uses brutality. But Robert Mugabe is living, breathing history. No one ever seems to want to acknowledge it, which he can't stand. Of course, he lacks the grace of Nelson Mandela, who manages to couple his determination with gentlemanly charm, and who, besides, feels no lost love for “comrade Bob.” But didn't Mugabe, over the decades, fight for the same black independence that Mandela espoused?

The independence of Zimbabwe in 1980 was astonishing — as exhilarating as the reggae of Bob expand=1] Marley, an advocate for persecuted blacks who came to perform in Harare, the country's capital. At that time, Mugabe was still listening to advice from his African peers, even though he hated it. Mozambique President Samora Machel warned: “You are exposing yourself to ruin by forcing white people to flee in a hurry for independence.”

Mugabe decided to follow Machel's advice by offering freedom to the man who, only a few weeks earlier, had called Mugabe an “apostle of Satan”: Ian Smith, the racist prime minister of Rhodesia who had famously promised that white rule in Africa would persist for “1,000 years.” The country immediately adopted the same strict politics as the rest of the southern continent. Apartheid South Africa toughened its repression at home and undertook to destabilize its neighbors.

The people still wait

The area needed another 10 years to calm down. Enough time for Mugabe to pursue the next phase of his fight, starting with returning land to people who had been dispossessed of their property before colonization. That had happened a century earlier, so perhaps it was inevitable that errors would occur during this process. But the days of 4,500 white farmers exploiting more than a third of the country’s arable lands while seven million black farmers shared another third were over. For Mugabe, land then — and now — is almost mystical, something that doesn't represent just farms and politics. And mysticism also serves war.

After the war for freedom and the struggle for independence, fighting nevertheless continued. The economy had to be “indigenized.” When Mugabe demanded that mining companies turn over 51 percent of their local affiliates to continue operating in Zimbabwe, the industry criticized him as an old man with ideas stuck in another era. They implied that they would withdraw, but they stayed. After all, Zimbabwe has the world’s second-largest platinum reserves.

Once again, Mugabe has won. Of course, only a handful of high-ranking ZANU-PF officials will benefit from the windfall. The people, who should be grateful for having been liberated from the oppression, are expected to wait.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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