Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe says a lot of crazy-sounding things. But he's making a rare media push this week, in advance of Zimbabwe's national elections on Wednesday, and that means more camera time, more speeches and more off-color quotes. The election will be the country's first since the 2008 vote that was plagued with violence and accusations of fraud so severe that the international community pressured Mugabe into accepting a power-sharing arrangement.
Mugabe, as ever, is alternating between the fire-breathing bombast and wily charm for which he's known. But there's also a touch of the paranoia sneaking in. All of those Mugabisms seem to come out when reporters ask him about the upcoming vote, which many observers fear he will rig in his favor, or about his age and reportedly ailing health. And the New York Times's Lydia Polgreen appeared to hit on just the right combination of nerves when she asked him whether he would run again in the 2018 election:
Asked if he would run again after this term (he'd be 94) Mugabe says, "Why do you want to know my secrets?"
— Lydia Polgreen (@lpolgreen) July 30, 2013
There's lots to enjoy here: the rash paranoia at an innocent question, the presumption that a president's electoral plans are secret and the unwillingness to acknowledge that at some point he will be too old to continue ruling Zimbabwe. But I think my favorite part is that one could reasonably interpret Mugabe as either kidding or deadly serious here. Sometimes the gap between the two is not so wide.
Mugabe's flair for quotability is driven by his identity as an ardent nationalist and anti-Western populist. His statements, for example lambasting gays or accusing British people of living in "small houses," can sound a bit off when removed from their ideological context. It may also have something to do with the fact that the 89-year-old Mugabe has been in power since 1980. He is not the first autocratic head of state, after three-plus decades in office, to settle into his own eccentricities.
But that's Mugabe as an outlandishly bizarre autocrat. As is often the case with outlandishly bizarre autocrats, there's a much darker side to him – and that's the side that ultimately matters for Zimbabwe and its citizens. For that, read Sudarsan Raghavan's story on the reports of voter fraud, the palpable tensions as Zimbabweans look ahead and the fear that this year might be a repeat of 2008.
Update: Some readers are asking about my previous favorite Mugabe quote. His comment from last week that the United Kingdom is "a very cold, uninhabitable country with small houses" is a good one, but for the best stuff you have to reach back to his controversial 2003 "Hitler tenfold" rant. "I am still the Hitler of the time," he said, challenging Western criticism head-on. "This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be Hitler tenfold. Ten times, that is what we stand for."