The list of African dictators determined to cling to power is a long one. This year popular uprisings in North Africa have triumphed over two of them: Ben Ali’s 23-year-long regime in Tunisia and Mubarak’s 30-year-long grip in Egypt. In Libya, Col. Gaddafi is battling popular resistance and U.S. and allied air strikes to maintain his 41-year-long lock on power. But many other dictators remain in place. Robert Mugabe is unusual among them in that he has always been blunt about his ambition. “No matter what force you have,” he declared in 2001, “this is my territory and that which is mine I cling [to] until death.”
Peter Godwin, the author of two best-selling memoirs set in Zimbabwe, where he was born, is a veteran observer of Mugabe. In “The Fear,” he describes Mugabe as an “African Robespierre” – highly educated and utterly ruthless. He cautions against viewing him as a case of a good leader who turned bad. “His reaction to opposition has invariably been a violent one,” Godwin writes.
Now another Zimbabwe election is coming, and it is an event viewed with dread rather than hope. The violence has already started. For anyone wanting to know how bad it can get, Godwin’s eyewitness account of the last election, in 2008, provides graphic detail of the terrorism that Mugabe habitually uses to keep himself in power. No one doubts that he will employ the same methods of murder, torture, rape and arson once again.
Using violence to win elections has become Mugabe’s trademark. He first set out his views on electoral democracy in a radio broadcast in 1976 during the guerrilla war against white minority rule in Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was previously called. “Our votes must go together with our guns,” he declared. “After all, any vote we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun.” Since coming to power in 1980, he has held fast to this creed, readily resorting to the gun to deal with whatever challenge his regime has faced. He even has boasted of having “a degree in violence.”
What propels Mugabe is his obsession with holding power. His overriding ambition, he once admitted, was to achieve total control, and he has pursued that objective with relentless single-mindedness, crushing opponents and critics at will, violating the courts, suppressing the independent press, trampling over property rights and subjecting every arm of government to his whim. His campaign to eliminate opposition in the southern province of Matabeleland in the 1980s culminated in mass murder. As many as 20,000 civilians are estimated to have died.
Despite the risks, since 2000 popular resistance to his corrupt and incompetent regime has continued to grow. At each successive election, Mugabe has managed to maintain his position only by resorting to violence and intimidation and by rigging the results. In 2008, however, it seemed for a few brief days of euphoria that the long night of his rule was ending. In the first round of presidential elections, he came in second and lost control of parliament.
It was at this point that Godwin, now based in New York, returned to Harare fully expecting “to dance on Robert Mugabe’s political grave.” His account of how Mugabe unleashed the army, police, security agencies and party militias to beat the electorate into submission in time for the second round of presidential elections is not for the faint-hearted. Among the electorate it was known simply as “chidudu” — The Fear. Villagers were beaten en masse and told to “vote Mugabe next time or you will die.” Relief supplies for millions of needy Zimbabweans were used as a weapon to coerce their votes. Scores of opposition organizers were murdered by death squads; hundreds were abducted and tortured. Rape, arson attacks and false arrests were commonplace.
Mugabe was open about his intentions. “We are not going to give up our country because of a mere ‘X’,” he told supporters at one election rally. “How can a ballpoint fight with a gun?”
Traveling around Zimbabwe, Godwin interviewed opposition activists, churchmen, diplomats and beleaguered white farmers and spent much time recording the ordeals of Mugabe’s victims. On one occasion, he accompanied the U.S. ambassador, James McGee, a hard-nosed black Vietnam veteran, to a hospital flooded with victims of the violence. Armed police tried to prevent McGee’s convoy from leaving by shutting the gates, but he ignored their threats. “What you gonna do? Shoot me?” McGee demanded. “Go ahead.” Then he pulled the gate open and waved the convoy through.
Five days before voting was due to start, the opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, decided to pull out of the election to avert further savagery. He said he could not “ask his supporters to come out and vote for him ‘when that vote would cost them their lives,’ ” Godwin writes. So once again, Mugabe’s terror triumphed. “Zimbabwe is mine,” he said afterwards. “I will never, never, never, never surrender.”
What stands out from Godwin’s gripping narrative is not just the scale of death and destruction that Mugabe is willing to inflict on his country for the sake of staying in power, but the extraordinary courage of Zimbabweans who defy his tyranny, knowing full well the consequences of doing so. In one remarkable passage, Godwin describes the “insane bravery” of an opposition candidate who continued to taunt his attackers even while they were beating him and who then, defying doctors’ orders, turned up in plaster casts to take his place at the swearing-in ceremony at a local council, confounding Mugabe’s supporters there, who assumed he was dead. If there is any hope for the future of this benighted land, it lies in such remarkable resilience.
Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe
By Peter Godwin
371 pp. $26.99