How bad is Robert Mugabe? The answer, in three scathing paragraphs

August 1, 2013

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe speaks to supporters. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

The amazing thing about Philip Gourevitch's 2002 New Yorker profile of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is not its scathing portrayal of the leader who was once an independence hero but who, after what was then 22 years in power, had earned much of the world's scorn for his abuses and excesses. What's amazing, and deeply dispiriting, is that the article was written well over a decade ago and yet so little has changed in Zimbabwe that this might as well have come out last week.

There have been some changes since 2002, of course, more on which below. But many of the dynamics remain the same – including a contested presidential election and even the name of his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, who ran against Mugabe again in a Wednesday presidential election. Tsvangirai is already accusing Mugabe's party of fraud. Here are three paragraphs from the story that remain a solid introduction to Mugabe and a primer on his rule:

Comrade Mugabe, as he likes to be called, was running for reëlection when he signed [a speech restriction called the Public Order and Security Act] into law, in January, and his message to voters could not have been clearer: Put up and shut up, or else. Zimbabweans were alarmed but not surprised. Officially, Zimbabwe remains a parliamentary democracy, but in reality Mugabe presides over the country as a tyrant in the classical sense of the word: an autocrat who rules exclusively for his own gratification, with contempt for the common good. Although he has continued to stage elections in order to maintain a veneer of international legitimacy, his preferred vote-winning strategies have always been intimidation and terror. Despite the brutal campaign in the parliamentary elections of 2000, however, the [opposition party Movement for Democratic Change] had succeeded in sweeping fifty-seven of a hundred and twenty contested seats, and now Mugabe was desperate. The Presidential election was to be held in mid-March, and for the first time in his political career he was running as the underdog candidate, trailing the M.D.C. leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, a former trade-union boss, by substantial margins. Zimbabweans finally appeared to have had enough of a regime that had transformed what was once one of Africa’s most prosperous countries into a domain of bloody disorder with one of the fastest-shrinking economies on earth.

The annual inflation is close to a hundred and fifteen per cent. The national treasury is bankrupt. The Army is engaged in a futile intervention in Congo’s civil war, at a cost of dozens of lives and an estimated million dollars a day. The health-care system is essentially defunct, and, with a quarter of the population infected with AIDS, the funeral business is among the country’s last remaining growth industries. When Mugabe said of Zimbabwe last year, “This is my territory and that which is mine I cling [to] unto death,” his subjects might well have wondered whether he was speaking of their death: the life expectancy of Zimbabweans has fallen by some fifteen years during his tenure, and now hovers around forty. Sixty per cent of Zimbabweans are unemployed, and those who have jobs earn, on average, less than they did at independence. The rest of the population scrapes by on less than a dollar a day, which might still buy a bellyful if the crippling effect of the farm invasions — compounded this year by regional drought — hadn’t created drastic food shortages, raising the prospect of imminent nationwide famine.

Unable to run on his record, Mugabe sought instead to run from it, by rallying his crumbling black base around the spectre of a common enemy: the whites. He didn’t care that ninety-seven per cent of M.D.C. voters and candidates were black. Behind “these human superficies,” he told the ZANU-P.F. central committee in July of 2000, Tsvangirai’s party represented “the resurgence of white power” and “the revulsive ideology of return to white settler rule.” In his view, the new opposition was just the old Rhodesian enemy got up in blackface, an imperialist fifth column, sponsored by London — with help from Washington —  "a counter-revolutionary Trojan horse contrived and nurtured by the very inimical forces that enslaved and oppressed our people yesterday.” And at his first rally of this year’s campaign he declared, “We are in a war to defend our rights and the interests of our people. The British have decided to take us on through the M.D.C.  . . . We went to war; we went to prison; we have suffered over the years; but we are not afraid of the struggle. We will not run away. You can count on us to fight.”

So what happened between 2002 and 2013? Zimbabwe's economy actually got much worse, suffering from hyperinflation so bad that the finance ministry one day announced that it would redenominate the currency by removing ten zeros from each unit, so that a $10 billion note would become worth one Zimbabwean dollar. In February 2009, the currency ballooned in value again and the finance ministry cut 12 zeros from the denominations. That April, it suspended the currency altogether. Since then, the free-fall has slowed and the economy is not in such dire shape.

Mugabe won the 2002 election against Tsvangirai but was widely accused by election monitors of vote fraud. In 2008, Tsvangirai ran against Mugabe again. Although Tsvangirai initially won more votes, the count was close enough to require a second round of voting. Between the two rounds, violence against Tsvangirai supporters and activists was widespread, with some human rights groups accusing Mugabe's party of setting up "torture camps." Tsvangirai withdrew but international outrage was such that Mugabe was forced to accept a power-sharing arrangement with Tsvangirai, although it's not clear how much power the opposition leader actually holds.

In the five years since, Zimbabwe's economy has continued to improve somewhat, though that has slowed a bit. Mugabe, now 89, has seen his health deteriorate and makes frequent trips to Asia, apparently for treatment. Even before Wednesday's vote, reports of voter manipulation and intimidation were already common. And, as The Post's Sudarsan Raghavan wrote, people are worried: "Many analysts fear a recurrence of economic and political instability if the election results are again disputed — as well as a fresh eruption of the violence that marred the 2008 polls."

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Max Fisher | August 1, 2013