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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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