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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Africa has had its share of brutal regimes and rulers in the past half-century. The apartheid regime of the Afrikaners in South Africa was, for quite a long time, a model of well-planned and methodical dictatorship. The eight-year half-comical/half-nightmarish regime of Idi Amin in Uganda appeared, for a while, to set a new mark in buffoonery, cruelty, and arbitrary violence. Then, when nobody seemed to be paying attention, one of the greatest acts of genocide of the past half-century took place in 1994 in Rwanda, with Hutu militias murdering perhaps as many as 800,000 members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group.

Photo of Margaret Thatcher shaking hands with Robert Mugabe

Margaret Thatcher, Robert Mugabe (1988)

Newscom

As usual, there was much hand-wringing by great powers watching from the sidelines, but nobody came to help the poor Rwandans until all the murdering had already been done. The regime of Robert Mugabe is altogether different. The longest-serving ruler in any African country (since independence in 1980), Mugabe has perpetuated his personal rule by an increasingly vicious series of assaults upon real and imagined opponents. Unfortunately, he has been aided and abetted in his hold on political power by the political establishment of South Africa and other African nations who are so mesmerized by Mugabe’s former leadership of a guerrilla independence movement that they are unwilling to lay a glove on him.

The Fear starts off with the writer, who was born and partly raised in Zimbabwe, returning to the country, as he says in the first chapter, “to dance on Robert Mugabe’s political grave” in 2008. Mugabe had agreed to presidential elections in March of that year; pollsters and observers of all stripes—including Mugabe’s own people—
had strongly suspected that the opposition, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, might actually win. In fact, as it became clear within days of the election, the opposition won a plurality of the votes, but not a big enough majority to avoid a runoff. And within hours of Godwin’s plane touching down in Harare it became apparent not only that Mugabe was going to steal the election and falsify the results but wreak frightful vengeance on as many Zimbabweans as he could identify as having voted for the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change.

Godwin’s account is vastly enriched by his personal background in Zimbabwe. He spent many of his adult years as a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times across the globe, and is familiar with the geography of Zimbabwe and many of its citizens, both black and white. But it is the reporter’s instinct for developing news, combined with the gifts of a deft wordsmith, that renders this so powerful a read.

One example, early on: 

If you were casting the role of “homicidal African dictator who fights his way to power and stays there against the odds for three decades,” Robert Mugabe wouldn’t even rate a call-back. This is no swaggering askari, no Idi Amin Dada, heavyweight boxing champion of the King’s African Rifles, nor some wide-shouldered, medal-strewn Nigerian general.

The descriptive talents become sharper-edged, however, as Godwin tours hospitals filled with torture victims of Mugabe’s goons, and as he follows the case of one white politician who incurred Mugabe’s wrath for supporting the MDC. One of his friends, Roy Bennett, an almost saintly former white farmer who was jambanja’d—expelled from his land by Mugabe’s “war vets”—and then joined the opposition, was subjected to beatings and extreme privation when in jail, yet retained through it all an amazingly sweet disposition.

Some of Mugabe’s black political opponents fared worse than Bennett, who at least eventually gained his freedom. Godwin interviewed one political activist whose legs were crushed by having them repeatedly driven over by a vehicle belonging to (and driven by agents of) Mugabe’s version of the KGB, the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO). Mugabe has not been reticent about his megalomania: “I am still the Hitler of the time!” is one of his pronouncements. The third presidential candidate in the race actually won by Morgan Tsvangirai, Simba Makoni, has a more modern twist on this dictator theme: “Why have we allowed him to become the Kim Il-Sung of Africa?” he asks Godwin.

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.