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For a few brief days following last month’s elections, it seemed the long night of Robert Mugabe‘s reign over Zimbabwe was ending. Against all odds, opposition parties succeeded in winning a majority in Parliament. But what matters most is the presidential election, and there, neither Mugabe nor his main opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, gained an outright majority. This gave Mugabe room to manipulate the results and to use his militias, youth groups, the police and the Army to ensure he wins a second round of voting.
The brief mood of euphoria is now gone. A climate of fear has returned to this country, which faces economic collapse and catastrophic food shortages. Mugabe, who has ruled for 28 years, has been very clear about his determination to hold power till the end. “No matter what force you have,” he once declared, “this is my territory and that which is mine I cling [to] unto death.”
The “Old Man,” as locals call him, may be 84, but there are still reasons to fear him. He has held onto power by rigging elections, violating court orders, suppressing the independent press and using thugs to attack his opponents. Violence has been his stock in trade for more than 30 years: Mugabe once referred to himself as a “black Hitler” and has boasted of having “a degree in violence.” A teacher by trade who has six university degrees, Mugabe was also one of the first black leaders to advocate violence against Ian Smith’s white minority regime in Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then called. Given Smith’s intransigence, no other method would likely have succeeded in ousting him. But during the seven-year-long civil war that preceded Smith’s overthrow, Mugabe became addicted to the use of violence—not just to establish a new order, but to gain total control over it.
Though Mugabe initially advocated democracy, it was always of a particular type. In 1976, he declared: “Our votes must go together with our guns. After all, any vote we shall have shall have been the product of the gun. The gun which produces the vote and should remain its security officer—its guarantor. The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.”
After winning Zimbabwe’s first democratic election in 1980, Mugabe wanted more: the kind of power he would have obtained through a military victory, which he once described as “the ultimate joy.” Power was not the means to an end for him. It was the end.
And sure enough, no sooner did Mugabe take office than he set out to establish a one-party state. His first target was Matabeleland province, a seedbed of opposition. After a minor outbreak of rebel activity there, Mugabe unleashed a military campaign in 1983 that featured the use of North Korean-trained troops and culminated in the mass murder of as many as 20,000 civilians.
As Mugabe acquired ever-greater powers, he ruled Zimbabwe through a vast system of patronage and used his secret police to harass, intimidate and even murder dissidents. In the process, he developed a monstrous ego, insisting that only he was capable of running the country.
The reality, however, is that Mugabe reduced his once prosperous country to a wreck. In recent years, as opposition mounted, he struck back with increasing ruthlessness. Hoping to bolster his popularity, he sent gangs of party activists to rural areas to seize control of white-owned farms, which were distributed to his supporters. The result was the collapse of the agricultural industry, the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy.
Facing the possibility of defeat in last month’s election, Mugabe returned to the tactics of fear that have served him so well in the past. In rural areas that voted for the opposition, the repression has already begun. Villagers are being beaten up en masse and told “vote Mugabe next time or you will die.” Mugabe may well succeed in holding on to power in the end. But the cost for Zimbabwe will be terrible: most of the population now faces abject poverty, starvation or the prospect of seeking refuge abroad.
The tragedy is that Zimbabwe, with its huge agricultural and mineral resources, has such high potential. But like many other African countries, it has been driven to ruin by disastrous leadership. Time and again, the failure of Africa’s leaders to provide effective government and abide by constitutional rule has produced enduring crises. The ruling elites have managed to prosper. But the mass of ordinary Africans struggle to survive.
Meredith is the author of “Mugabe: Power, Plunder and the Struggle for Zimbabwe” and “The State of Africa: A History of 50 Years of Independence.”
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