With westerners, his name alone is enough to cause consternation ? loathing, knee-jerk reactions, though there have been numerous Southern African leaders who sang his praises too long, permitting him to stay in power in the face of some of the continent’s worst atrocities. Rarely has an elected leader trashed a country as quickly as Robert Mugabe ruined one of the continent’s gems. When I first visited Zimbabwe in 1996, everything seemed to work: governance, infrastructure, especially the economy. But several trips later, by 2001, the rapid decline had been so fast that one Zimbabwean told me that survival in the country was beginning to be as difficult as “juggling water.”
The issue?the country’s quick decline?was mostly the result of land redistribution, which meant taking land away from white farmers, and giving it to political cronies, including war veterans and ZANU-PF party flunkies, with little regard for the consequences. The new land owners certainly didn’t know how to farm; with declining income from agriculture, the economy began to collapse. As living conditions for almost everyone outside his inner circle declined, Mugabe responded by becoming increasingly paranoid, rigging elections, and instigating a reign of violence against the masses who only a few years earlier had been his supporters. But Mugabe hung in there by repeating the liturgy of his past: it was the British who were responsible for the country’s sorry economic decline?part of a British plan to re-colonize the country. The Big Lie continued to keep him in power.
Few African intellectuals have been willing to call Mugabe by his rightful name: an African monster. Thus, the arrival of Chielo Zona Eze’s The Trial of Robert Mugabe is quite an unexpected surprise, even though as a work of fiction the novel leaves much to be desired. Nor is it any real surprise that the author is not from Southern Africa, but Nigeria, which in spite of its own fragile political balancing act, has largely fostered an independent press with writers mostly free to tackle difficult political issues?often through fiction, drama, and poetry. Even more astonishing is Eze’s in-depth analysis of Zimbabwe’s chaotic situation and the ways that a number of the country’s intellectuals attempted to face it. In short, Eze has done his homework, reading every scrap of information he could locate about Zimbabwe’s decline.
Eze’s story takes the framework of a trial, after his main characters’ deaths: Robert Mugabe, of course, but two celebrated Zimbabwe writers, Dambudzo Marechera and Yvonne Vera, who both died of AIDS. But other Zimbabwean figures, who Mugabe killed off in order to retain his power are also included. Additionally, a number of African historical figures, stretching over several centuries, Steve Biko, for example, but also Olaudah Equiano, often identified as the first writer from the continent. Collectively, they are all present at Mugabe’s trial in the afterworld, judges and jurors, in additional to numerous Zimbabweans who met their deaths at the hands of Mugabe’s henchmen?which mostly means being hacked to pieces.
The Matabeleland genocide, shortly after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, is recorded in detail, the first instance of Mugabe’s obvious disregard for human life. Eze cleverly morphs VD into Veteran Disease, that is, the killing of innocent women and children for matters of political expediency. Yvonne Vera?who did not flinch in her own writings?keeps running notes during the trial, presumably for another novel: The Trial of African Octogenarian Dictators, Part I. However, she quickly crosses the title out: “There were too many African dictators for a single discourse to cover. In fact, if people were to write about them, the books would stand taller than Mount Kilimanjaro. She needed to be very particular, indeed; tell the story of the dictator she knew very well. Just one. The second title that came to her mind did the trick: The Trial of Robert Mugabe.”
As brutal as the story is, Eze has quite a gift for literary hi-jinks. Just before the sentencing for his crimes, Mugabe is diagnosed as suffering from Viridae postcolonitis: “Postcolonial virus, your excellency. Some kid of inflammation. But you did not know you had breathed in those dangerous viruses and they attacked your pituitary gland so that you no longer produced growth hormone. Within a year or so, you developed a full-blown postcolonial fever. You became developmentally delayed.” Worse, the result was a desire for retribution, without a thought to help Zimbabweans advance.
Mugabe’s trial ends, of course, with a verdict, and how?you might ask?can that verdict be meaningful if the tyrant is already dead. That you will need to decide for yourselves. Yet Chielo Zona Eze is certain about one thing. It’s probably only in fiction where the world’s worst despots get their just rewards.
The Trial of Robert Mugabe
By Chielo Zona Eze
Okri Books, 160 pp., $12
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.