The Magazine

Mugabe’s Dungeon

The nightmare of Africa’s longest-ruling tyrant.

Oct 31, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 07 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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Why, indeed? The North Korean analogy is appropriate. It was Zimbabwe’s North Korean-trained Fifth Division that was responsible for most of the deaths of some 20,000 in Matabeleland during the years 1982-85. Tens of thousands more were tortured in camps specially built for this purpose. Everyone seems to know who was behind the Matabeleland massacres: One of the characters, still active as a Mugabe enforcer today, is Air Marshal Perence Shiri who, according to Godwin, was part of a team assembled by Mugabe in 2009 for the planned electoral runoff with Tsvangirai. The violent campaign against oppositionists was called Operation Ngatipedzenavo (“Let’s finish them off!”), but
during the runoff Tsvangirai himself was arrested three times and his supporters arrested and beaten. He withdrew from the contest to spare the MDC from even more brutality.

There are several heroes and heroines in Godwin’s account: ordinary Zimbabwean citizens who risk everything to tell their stories, indefatigable doctors and nurses who continue to attend to torture victims despite regime threats. There are also some impressive foreign diplomats.
Godwin was eyewitness, at one point, to some gutsy behavior by the American ambassador, James McGee, an African-American career diplomat who was a veteran of four previous African postings. On an unannounced tour of locations near Harare where there had been reports of beatings and torture by Mugabe’s men, McGee was confronted by a police officer who made it clear that he was armed and that McGee’s convoy of diplomatic staff cars was not going to be permitted
to leave. 

“Stop, stop!” said the rattled officer.

“Or what?” said McGee. “What you gonna do? Shoot me? Go ahead.” McGee then advanced towards the flustered group of agents, untwisted the wire keeping the gate of the compound closed, and hauled open the gate.

Episodes like this kept me turning the pages rapidly, as did the heartrending stories of ordinary Zimbabweans caught up in Mugabe’s relentless vortex of violence and terror. At one point in the narrative Godwin himself barely escapes arrest after a church service in the village where his father had been buried years earlier. He is partly protected by hymn-singing black Zimbabwean ladies who ensure that all the (possibly incriminating) contents of his backpack are sneaked away from the authorities who suspect him of the crime of journalism, or worse.

The Fear has a telling description of Robert Mugabe’s style of rule in Zimbabwe over his three decades in power: “smart genocide .  .  . as if he has taken the entire nation hostage, using them as human shields.” With desperate hyperinflation, a drop in male life expectancy from 62 in 1990 to 44 today, widespread cholera, and desperate malnutrition, Zimbabwe is a dying state presided over by an 87-year-old mafioso.

David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East.