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In a radio broadcast that Robert Mugabe made from exile in 1976, during the guerrilla war he was leading to overthrow white-minority rule in Rhodesia, he set out his views about the kind of electoral democracy he intended to establish once he had gained control of Zimbabwe, as the new state was to be named. “Our votes must go together with our guns,” he said. “After all, any vote we shall have shall have been the product of the gun. The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer—its guarantor. The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.”
As Zimbabwe’s leader for 37 years, Mugabe never deviated from this attachment to brute force. Whatever challenge his regime faced, he was always prepared to overcome it by resorting to the gun. So proud was he of his record that he once boasted that in addition to his seven university degrees, he had acquired “many degrees in violence.”
What propelled Mugabe to use violence so readily was his obsession with power. Power for Mugabe was not a means to an end but the end itself. His overriding ambition was to gain total control, and he pursued that objective with relentless single-mindedness, crushing opponents and critics who stood in his way, sanctioning murder, torture, and lawlessness of every kind. “I will never, never, never, never surrender,” he said after unleashing a campaign of terror to win an election held in 2008. “Zimbabwe is mine.”
To sustain himself in power, Mugabe came to rely on a cabal of army generals, police chiefs, senior civil servants, and political cronies willing to do his bidding. In return, he gave them license to amass huge personal wealth, derived mainly from bribes and the looting of state assets. As the bedrock of the Mugabe state, they became accustomed to using methods of violence and intimidation as a matter of routine, able to act with impunity.
Ensconced in the presidential residence in Harare, the capital, Mugabe intended to rule for life. At the age of 93, although prone to falling asleep in meetings and afflicted by memory lapses, he still clung to power with the same determination and ruthlessness that had marked his political career from the start.
In his dotage, however, he succumbed to the blandishments of his 52-year-old wife, Grace, an avaricious and menacing figure with ambitions to establish herself at the head of a Mugabe dynasty. During a vicious struggle over the succession, Mugabe was persuaded in November 2017 to dismiss Grace’s main rival, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, his chief enforcer and a key player in the security establishment. Fearing that their own positions were under threat, the generals who had underwritten Mugabe’s rule for so long decided to stage a palace coup, placing him under house arrest. For six days, Mugabe tried to hold on to the trappings of office, but after losing the support of his party, he accepted a lavish retirement package and agreed to resign, paving the way for Mnangagwa to take control.
Mugabe may have gone, but the Mugabe state lives on. The apparatus of vote rigging and repression is still in place. The plight of Zimbabwe, moreover, remains pitiful, a once prosperous country not only reduced to economic ruin but also trapped in a culture of corruption and violence that Mugabe fostered since gaining power in 1980 and that is now deeply embedded among the ruling elite. There is little hope of much change for the better.
Before he entered politics, Mugabe seemed set on an illustrious career as a teacher. Like many other independence leaders in Africa, he was a product of the mission-school system. As a pupil at Kutama Mission School in rural Rhodesia, then a British colony, he devoted much of his time to studying, encouraged by Jesuit teachers who recognized his intellectual ability and his aptitude for self-discipline. His Jesuit upbringing instilled in him a self-confidence that he never lost. Yet he was also secretive and solitary, preferring books to sports or other school activities. “His books were his only friends,” his brother Donato once recalled.
Mugabe left Kutama in 1945 with a teaching diploma and took up a series of teaching posts. After winning a scholarship to study in South Africa, he returned to Rhodesia in 1952 more politically aware of the injustices of white rule, but he still preferred to continue his studies rather than engage in political activity. To his political friends in the 1950s, he remained an aloof and austere figure, a supporter of the African nationalist cause but one who kept his distance. In 1958, with three academic degrees to his credit, he took up a post at a teacher-training institute in newly independent Ghana. As the first black African colony to gain independence, Ghana was brimming with optimism and ambition at the time. Its leader, Kwame Nkrumah, harbored grand plans for a new socialist order and was keen to support the liberation of the rest of Africa from European rule. Mugabe reveled in this environment but nevertheless remained committed to his work as a teacher.
The pivotal moment came in 1960, when he returned to Rhodesia for a brief visit, fully expecting to go back to Ghana, but found himself caught up in nationalist agitation against white rule. Galvanized into action by street protests, he abruptly resigned from his teaching post and threw himself into the nationalist fray with the same dedication he had hitherto devoted to education.
Mugabe was among the first nationalists to advocate armed struggle, convinced that nothing else would overcome white intransigence. But he was simultaneously helping organize attacks against black political opponents. When the nationalist movement split in 1963, setting off internecine warfare between two rival factions, ZANU (the Zimbabwe African National Union) and ZAPU (the Zimbabwe African People’s Union), Mugabe played a prominent role in orchestrating violence carried out by ZANU’s youth group against ZAPU. ZAPU was politically aligned with the Soviet Union and tended to focus on the urban proletariat, whereas ZANU supported Mao Zedong’s China and was agrarian in outlook.
Gang violence between the two factions eventually gave Rhodesia’s white rulers sufficient pretext to arrest nationalist leaders and crush the nationalist movement in 1964 in the name of law and order. When a guerrilla war against white rule broke out in 1972, ZANU and ZAPU fought separately in different parts of Rhodesia. Meanwhile, many of the personal hatreds and antagonisms engendered in the nationalist movement in the 1960s continued to fester and came to the fore after independence in 1980, with disastrous consequences.
Like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Mugabe endured long years of imprisonment. And like him, he suffered the anguish of losing a son and was refused permission to attend the funeral. But whereas Mandela used his prison term to open a dialogue with South Africa’s white rulers in order to defeat apartheid, Mugabe emerged from 11 years in prison bent on revolution. In 1975, he escaped into exile in neighboring Mozambique, intent on taking control of ZANU’s war effort, determined to overthrow white society by force and replace it with a one-party Marxist regime. In 1979, after seven years of civil war in which at least 30,000 people had died, a negotiated settlement under British auspices was within reach, but Mugabe still hankered for military victory—“the ultimate joy,” as he described it at the time. Only an ultimatum from African presidents who had until now backed him forced him to compromise, accepting a cease-fire and a British-run transition to independence. “As I signed the document, I was not a happy man at all,” he recalled.
After winning a majority in Zimbabwe’s inaugural elections in February 1980, Mugabe became prime minister of a coalition government amid a rising sense of optimism. He made strenuous efforts to achieve a good working relationship with his former white adversaries, pledging to strive for reconciliation and racial harmony. Instead of the angry Marxist ogre that the white minority had been led to expect, he impressed them as a model of moderation. Even the recalcitrant white leader Ian Smith, who had previously denounced Mugabe as “the apostle of Satan,” found him “sober and responsible.”
On the international stage, Zimbabwe was accorded star status. In the first year of independence, Zimbabwe was awarded more than $1 billion in aid, enabling Mugabe to embark on ambitious health and education programs. The white population, too, benefited from the growing prosperity. Mugabe paid particular attention to the concerns of white farmers—the backbone of the agricultural economy—reassuring them with large increases in commodity prices. “Good old Bob!” they cheered. “We are the darling of the world,” Mugabe told a meeting of white farmers, “and since we are on honeymoon and honeymoons don’t always last long, we ought to take advantage of it!”
Within weeks of taking office, Mugabe decided to settle some old scores, not against former white adversaries but against black opponents.
Zimbabwe’s honeymoon was indeed brief. Within weeks of taking office, Mugabe decided to settle some old scores, not against former white adversaries but against black opponents. Although Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF (the additional two letters stand for “Patriotic Front”), had won the February 1980 elections with a substantial majority, the outcome left his ZAPU rivals with a stronghold in Matabeleland, a region that makes up the western half of the country. Mugabe made clear his intention of provoking a showdown, licensing his closest colleagues to speak out about the need to “crush” ZAPU. In October 1980, he secretly arranged for North Koreans to train a special military brigade as a strike force. It was given the name Gukurahundi, after a Shona word meaning “the rain that blows away the chaff before the spring rains.”
In 1983, using “dissident” activity in Matabeleland as a pretext, Mugabe unleashed the Gukurahundi on a campaign of mass murder, torture, arson, rape, and beatings directed mainly against the civilian population there. One of the key figures in the campaign was Mnangagwa, then the minister of state security, who described the “dissidents” as “cockroaches” that needed to be eliminated. Over a four-year period, an estimated 20,000 civilians were killed. ZAPU eventually capitulated and agreed to disband.
Having demolished his ZAPU rivals and established a de facto one-party state, Mugabe went on to accumulate huge personal power, giving himself the right to hold office as president for an unlimited number of terms. He based his regime on a vast system of patronage, controlling appointments to all senior posts in the civil service, the defense forces, the police, and parastatal organizations. One by one, all these institutions—and, eventually, the judiciary—were subordinated to his will. His secret police harassed, intimidated, and murdered his opponents.
As a reward for their loyalty, Mugabe allowed the new elite to engage in a scramble for property, farms, businesses, and contracts. “I am rich because I belong to ZANU-PF,” boasted one of his cronies, the multimillionaire businessman Philip Chiyangwa, in the press. “If you want to be rich, you must join ZANU-PF.” The scramble became ever more frenetic, spawning corruption on a massive scale. One after another, state corporations—the national oil company, the national electric company, the national telecommunications company—were plundered. Fraud, theft, and embezzlement in government departments became endemic. In the most notorious case, a state fund set up to provide compensation for those who had suffered during the liberation war was looted so thoroughly by Mugabe’s colleagues that nothing was left for genuine victims. A land redistribution program financed by the British government was halted when it was discovered that Mugabe had been handing out farms intended for peasant resettlement to ministers and officials.
By the mid-1990s, Mugabe had become an irascible dictator, brooking no opposition, contemptuous of the law and human rights, and indifferent to the incompetence and corruption around him. Whatever good intentions he had started out with had long since evaporated. Surrounded by sycophants, he had become increasingly detached from reality, living in heavily fortified residences and venturing out only with retinues of armed bodyguards and in large motorcades. He spent much of his time abroad, enjoying the role of revolutionary hero.
Ordinary people suffered the brunt of government mismanagement. By 2000, Zimbabweans were generally poorer than they had been at independence; average wages were lower; unemployment had tripled; and life expectancy was falling. More than two-thirds of the population lived in abject poverty. Veterans of the liberation war held particular grievances over government neglect and Mugabe’s failure to deliver on promises of land reform.
Popular opposition to Mugabe’s regime spread to many parts of the country. Aiming to challenge ZANU-PF in parliamentary elections in 2000, a coalition of labor unions, lawyers, journalists, and church groups launched a new party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and mobilized support to oppose Mugabe’s plans to extend his powers even further in a referendum over a proposed new constitution. White activists played a significant role in the “no” campaign. White farmers, in particular, were alarmed by Mugabe’s proposal to allow the government to seize land without compensation.
The result was a stunning defeat for Mugabe: 55 percent voted against the proposed constitution. Shaken to the core, the ruling elite suddenly saw their grip on power slipping and, with it, all the wealth, salaries, perks, contracts, commissions, and scams they had enjoyed for 20 years. Mugabe attributed his defeat principally to the whites.
In a carefully coordinated operation, starting ten days after the referendum result was announced, Mugabe launched a campaign of terror against white farmers and hundreds of thousands of black farm workers whom he accused of supporting the opposition. Gangs armed with axes and machetes invaded white-owned farms across the country. Government and army trucks were used to transport them to the farms and keep them supplied with rations. They were called “war veterans,” but the majority were too young to have participated in the war 20 years earlier. Large numbers were unemployed youths paid a daily allowance. They assaulted farmers and their families, threatened to kill them, and forced many to flee their homes. They stole tractors, slaughtered cattle, destroyed crops, and polluted water supplies. The police refused to take action. Black farm workers and their families were subjected to mass beatings and taken away en masse to “reeducation centers.”
At one point, Zimbabwe’s inflation rate reached 500 billion percent.
Mugabe fanned the flames, describing white farmers as “enemies,” and as the election approached, his target became the MDC and opposition of any kind. “The MDC will never form the government of this country, never ever, not in my lifetime or even after I die,” he declared. Violence and intimidation erupted across the country. One MDC candidate, Blessing Chebundo, who was running for Mnangagwa’s seat in Parliament, endured several murder attempts. On his way to work, Chebundo was surrounded by a gang of ZANU-PF thugs who poured gasoline on him and tried to set him on fire, but failed because in the scuffle, their matches had been doused in gasoline. Even though he was forced to remain in hiding throughout the campaign, he nevertheless managed to inflict on Mnangagwa a humiliating defeat.
After months of systematic intimidation, ZANU-PF scraped through with a narrow victory. But there was to be no respite from Mugabe’s tyranny. He pursued his vendetta against white farmers relentlessly, seizing cattle ranches, dairy farms, tobacco estates, and safari properties. When the Supreme Court declared his actions illegal, Mugabe swiftly removed independent judges and replaced them with loyalists. A chaotic land grab ensued as Mugabe’s cronies, party officials, and army and police commanders scrambled to snap up choice properties. Among the beneficiaries were his wife, Grace, and his brother-in-law.
The farm seizures spelled the end of commercial agriculture as a major industry. The impact on food supplies was calamitous. To survive, Zimbabwe became increasingly dependent on food imports and foreign food aid. Over a five-year period from 1999 to 2004, the economy shrank by one-third, precipitating a mass exodus. It was not only whites who fled abroad but also a large part of the black middle class—doctors, nurses, teachers, and other professionals who saw no future for themselves in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
The same pattern of violence, intimidation, and vote rigging prevailed from one election to the next. In 2005, Mugabe targeted the mass of disaffected Zimbabweans living in slums and shantytowns on the fringes of urban centers, strongholds of the MDC. In a campaign called Operation Murambatsvina, using a Shona word meaning “drive out the rubbish,” police squads bulldozed and sledgehammered one community after another. According to a UN investigation, some 700,000 people lost their homes, their source of livelihood, or both. Mugabe claimed that the aim of the campaign was merely slum clearance. But his real purpose was to make clear the fate of anyone who voted against him.
In the run-up to presidential and parliamentary elections in 2008, the MDC’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, became a direct victim of Mugabe’s tactics. When Tsvangirai arrived at a police station to investigate reports that supporters held there had been beaten, he, too, was seized, held down, and beaten so badly that doctors thought his skull had been fractured. “I told the police, ‘Beat him a lot,’” Mugabe subsequently said at a gathering of African presidents. “He asked for it.”
Despite the fearful consequences, MDC supporters continued to defy Mugabe’s regime. The 2008 parliamentary elections gave opposition parties, led by the MDC, a clear majority. The simultaneous presidential election also gave Tsvangirai a narrow lead over Mugabe, but election officials, after weeks of prevarication, manipulated the figures to ensure that a second round of voting was needed.
The campaign of terror that Mugabe unleashed to win the second round was more intense than any previous election episode. In a military-style operation, youth militias, police agents, army personnel, and party thugs moved into opposition areas, setting up torture camps and indoctrination centers. The campaign was officially called Operation Mavhoterapapi?—“Operation Whom Did You Vote For?” Among the people, it was known simply as chidudu—“the fear.” Villagers were beaten en masse and told to vote for Mugabe next time or they would be killed. Scores of MDC organizers were abducted and murdered; hundreds were tortured. Some 200,000 people were forced to flee their homes. Mugabe vowed that he would “go to war” to prevent an MDC victory. “We are not going to give up our country because of a mere x,” he said. “How can a ballpoint pen fight with a gun?” Five days before the voting was due to start, Tsvangirai withdrew.
A fractious coalition government was eventually formed, but Mugabe refused to implement any major reform that would restore a semblance of democracy, leaving Tsvangirai and the MDC humiliated and discredited by the time of the next election, in 2013. The economy, meanwhile, continued its downward slide. At one point, inflation reached 500 billion percent, according to calculations by the International Monetary Fund, rendering the currency worthless.
The damage inflicted on Zimbabwe by Mugabe’s 37-year rule is immense. Mugabe vitiated the courts, trampled on property rights, rigged elections, hamstrung the independent press, and left Zimbabwe bankrupt and impoverished. One-quarter of Zimbabweans live abroad in order to survive; four million depend on food aid; vast numbers of children are stunted by malnutrition; life expectancy, at 60 years, ranks among the lowest in the world.
No wonder the downfall of Mugabe brought crowds onto the streets in celebration. But the sense of euphoria has been replaced by apprehension. As a member of Mugabe’s inner circle since independence, Mnangagwa, now 75 years old, is well known for his ruthlessness. His involvement in the Gukurahundi atrocities and in ZANU-PF’s habitual election violence has made him the most feared politician in Zimbabwe. At his inauguration as president in December 2017, he praised Mugabe as “a father, a mentor, a comrade-in-arms, and my leader.” He also approved a lavish retirement package for Mugabe and his wife that includes bodyguards, housekeepers, gardeners, waiters, cooks, chauffeurs, diplomatic passports, first-class air flights, and private health insurance.
In recent years, as Mugabe’s deputy, Mnangagwa sought ways out of Zimbabwe’s economic morass, courting multilateral financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and proposing reforms to encourage foreign investors to return. As president, he has promised to compensate white farmers, even though the treasury is empty. But although he offers a more pragmatic approach than Mugabe, Mnangagwa has also made clear his determination that ZANU-PF, and its wealthy elite, will remain in control. “The dogs may keep on barking, but ZANU-PF will keep on ruling,” he said after Mugabe’s resignation. To this end, he has appointed to his cabinet several former generals notorious for their brutality, including Perence Shiri, former commander of the Gukurahundi, and Constantino Chiwenga, a former defense forces chief; both have been heavily involved in orchestrating election violence and farm seizures.
The key test of Mnangagwa’s intentions will come in the run-up to the next elections, which are due later this year. He has promised that the elections will be “free and fair.” Yet ZANU-PF’s government has a long record of rigging elections. It is practiced not only in controlling the work of election officials and law enforcement agencies but also in manipulating a defective electoral roll system that contains millions of ghost voters. Much will depend on the willingness of Western governments to insist on credible elections that are strictly monitored as a condition for helping Zimbabwe emerge from decades of misrule. Meanwhile, the state Mugabe created lives on. With Mnangagwa and the generals at the helm, ZANU-PF continues to control every lever of government. Just as Mugabe envisioned more than four decades ago, the vote still goes with the gun.