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The Big Men of Africa know no shame, care nothing for their countries and their people, and continue to assert their control with the most draconian methods, “ruling” by an unarticulated but obvious assumption, lated but obvious assumption, “It’s all mine.” Meaning, the country is all mine. Laurent Koudou Gbagbo—the questionable president of Ivory Coast—certainly made this conclusion. Losing the last election didn’t matter. Take it all. Nationalize the banks, the cocoa crop. Anything to stay in power. In the past few weeks there have been rumors that Robert Mugabe and Muammar Qaddafi have a secret arrangement that if things get too hot, they can flee to the other’s country. Fortunately, as I write this, it looks as if two of these Big Men are about to become small men.
Conversely, it appears as if Mugabe will remain in power forever. This is certainly the implication of Peter Godwin’s Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe, a chilling account of how the dictator has stayed in power after losing the most recent election in 2008. Godwin knows the country as well as anyone else. He was born and grew up in what was then Rhodesia and has published two earlier books about his experiences in the country: Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (1996) and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun (2006), the former, focused on his own life; and the latter, on his father’s. Since Godwin is persona non grata in the country, in order to gather material for his latest book, he had to enter the country illegally, disguising his identity and his profession as a journalist.
When Godwin returns to Zimbabwe, it’s early April of 2008, and the results of the recent election—two weeks earlier—have not been announced because Mugabe has clearly lost. Mugabe is 84 year old; six percent of the workers in the country have jobs; and it’s already clear that although Mugabe himself may be willing to admit that he’s lost the election, his henchmen around him—particularly the important people in his ZANU-PF political party—will not let him go. They’re fully aware that if he leaves, their own lives will be in jeopardy. They’ve been watching rather carefully the trial of Charles Taylor, in the Hague. In short—and this is clearly what we are currently observing in some of the countries in the Middle East—it’s not just the Big Man himself who has to be unseated but all the thugs around him.
Godwin’s observations are profound. He describes the jealousy that Mugabe has always had of Nelson Mandela. In the years since independence (1980), the old man has managed to develop a messianic reputation, based on his years as a liberation leader. With considerable wit, Godwin describes Mugabe’s second (much younger) wife, Grace, as “a woman of prodigious retail appetite,” as the country’s “first shopper”—those excesses amidst all the poverty and one of the highest inflation rates the world has ever known. Yet, juxtaposed to Mugabe, the sycophants around him—even his wife—the evidence of a parallel reality is everywhere in the country: torture victims in the rural areas, who can hardly walk; ZANU youths beating up anyone suspected of voting for Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC party and the winner of the recent election.
The fear in the country is palpable. Godwin calls it “politicide,” the equivalent of genocide to wipe out an ethnic group, “the practice of wiping out an entire political movement.” “And now the murders here are accompanied by torture and rape on an industrial scale, committed on a catch-and-release basis. When those who survive, terribly injured, limp home, or are carried or pushed in wheelbarrows, or on the backs of pickup trucks, they act like human billboards, advertising the appalling consequences of opposition to the tyranny, bearing their gruesome political stigmata. And in their home communities, their return causes ripples of anxiety to spread. The people have given this time of violence and suffering its own name, which I hear for the first time tonight. They are calling it chidudu. It means, simply, “The Fear.”
In the cities, Godwin observes, “Bed after bed, in ward after ward, on floor after floor is filled with Mugabe’s victims. A hospital full of those he has injured, tortured, and burned out of their homes.” And then he adds, “With no foreign journalists allowed here [in the country], most of the opposition leadership having fled, and NGOs hamstrung by restrictions, there is a vacuum in which Mugabe can conduct his campaign of violence.” Late in May, Morgan Tsvangirai returns from exile, six weeks after the election he won. A sham agreement of power-sharing is worked out between the two of them, with ZANU continuing its reign of terror and incarcerating Roy Bennett (also of the opposition) after agreeing with that he will remain free.
But Mugabe and his thugs stay in control. First, the Zim dollar is put out of circulation, replaced by the US dollar, and that helps stabilize things, especially when some foreign governments and NGOs start funding development. More importantly, diamonds are discovered in the eastern part of the country—so plentiful you can literally scoop them up—and Mugabe and friends seize control of the enormous profits from this unexpected windfall. Mugabe continues to pass “contentious laws by emergency decree.” And then the coup de grace, delivered by the international community: loss of interest in Mugabe’s collapsed country.
Peter Godwin’s The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe makes Heart of Darkness and Leopold’s Congo look like child play, reminding me of a remark that a white Zimbabwean (of several generations) said to me in 2001, the last time I was in the country: “Western governments don’t know how to deal with African Big Men.”
The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe
By Peter Godwin
Little Brown, 371 pages, $26.99
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.