Mugabe: a tyrant from the start

Those who say Zimbabwe's president was once a hero are fooling
By James Kirchick

As Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, presides over what might be the
most rapid disintegration yet of a modern nation-state, it has become de

eur for journalists, politicians and academics to offer what has become a
near-universal analysis: Mugabe, who has ruled his country
uninterrupted for 27 years, was a promising leader who became corrupted over time by

This meme was popularized not long after Mugabe began seizing
white-owned farms in 2000. Four years ago, in response to these raids, the New York
Times editorialized that “in 23 years as president, Mr. Mugabe has gone
from independence hero to tyrant.” Earlier this week, Archbishop Desmond
Tutu said that “I’m just devastated by what I can’t explain, by what seems
to be an aberration, this sudden change in character.”

The characterization of Mugabe as a good man gone wrong extends to
popular culture as well. In the 2005 political thriller “The Interpreter,”
Nicole Kidman played a dashing, multilingual exile from the fictional African
country of Matobo, whose ruler was once a soft-spoken, cerebral
schoolteacher who liberated his country from a white minority regime
but became a despot. Mugabe certainly understood the likeness; he accused
Kidman and her costar, Sean Penn, of being part of a CIA plot to oust him.

But this popular conception of Mugabe — propagated by the liberals who
championed him in the 1970s and 1980s — is absolutely wrong. From the
beginning of his political career, Mugabe was not just a Marxist but
one who repeatedly made clear his intention to run Zimbabwe as an
authoritarian, one-party state. Characteristic of this historical revisionism is
former Newsweek southern Africa correspondent Joshua Hammer, writing recently
in the liberal Washington Monthly that “more than a quarter-century after
leading his guerrilla army to victory over the racist regime of Ian
Smith in white-minority-ruled Rhodesia, President Robert Mugabe has morphed into
a caricature of the African Big Man.”

But Mugabe did not “morph” into “a caricature of the African Big Man.”
He has been one since he took power in 1980 — and he displayed
unmistakable authoritarian traits well before that. Those who were watching at the
time should have known what kind of man Mugabe was, and the fact that so
many today persist in the contention that Mugabe was a once-benign ruler
speaks much about liberal illusions of African nationalism.

Mugabe’s formative political education began in 1964, during a decade
of imprisonment for subversive activity against the white minority regime
that ruled Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia. While imprisoned, Mugabe earned
degrees in law and economics by correspondence courses from the
University of London and became a revolutionary Marxist. After he was released, he
helped lead a civil war against the government.

All the participants in the Rhodesian war used vicious tactics. But
Mugabe displayed a particular ruthlessness that ought to have indicated what
sort of ruler he might one day become. In 1978, four black moderates
announced that they had reached an “internal settlement” with the white regime,
paving the way for democratic elections. One of these leaders, Ndabaningi
Sithole, dispatched 39 envoys to meet representatives of Mugabe and Joshua
Nkomo, another guerrilla leader. The envoys were captured, murdered and,
according to Time magazine, “their bodies were then laid out by the guerrillas in
a grisly line at the side of the road as a warning to local tribespeople.”

The following year, in protest of the election that then-Premier Ian
Smith had organized with black leaders willing to lay down their arms,
Mugabe’s organization released a death list naming 50 “Zimbabwean black
bourgeoisie, traitors, fellow-travelers and puppets of the Ian Smith regime,
opportunistic running-dogs and other capitalist vultures.” During those
elections, Mugabe and Nkomo’s forces killed 10 black civilians
attempting to vote. Mugabe’s men also blew up a Woolworth’s store and massacred
Catholic missionaries.

Mugabe was clear about his preference for authoritarian rule. Years
before taking office, asked what sort of political future he envisioned for
Zimbabwe, Mugabe expressed his belief that “the multiparty system . . .
is a luxury” and that if Zimbabweans did not like Marxism, “then we will
have to re-educate them.”

Today, with Zimbabwe suffering the highest inflation and lowest
life-expectancy rates in the world, it is fashionable to call Mugabe a
“caricature” of an African despot. But Mugabe became that caricature
immediately after assuming office. He confiscated about a dozen private
companies associated with the rival ZAPU party and expropriated farms
were owned by associates of Nkomo (his erstwhile liberation ally), a
harbinger of what he would do to white farmers 20 years later. At a
political rally in 1982, Mugabe said about his own political party:
will rule forever.”

In 1984, Mugabe imprisoned Methodist Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who had won
the 1979 multiracial election boycotted by Mugabe, for 10 months without
charge, falsely accusing him of conspiring against Zimbabwe.

And over several years in the early 1980s, Mugabe executed what
arguably might be the worst of his many atrocities, a campaign of terror against
the minority Ndebele tribe in which he unleashed a North Korean-trained
army unit that killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people.

Yet, even in the midst of these various crimes, Mugabe never lost his
fan base in the West. In 1986, the University of Massachusetts Amherst
bestowed on Mugabe an honorary doctorate of laws just as he was completing his
genocide against the Ndebele. In April of this year, as the campus
debated revoking the degree it ought never have given him, African American
studies professor Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, who had been in favor of honoring
Mugabe two decades ago, told the Boston Globe: “They gave it to the Robert
Mugabe of the past, who was an inspiring and hopeful figure and a humane
political leader at the time.” Similarly, in 1984, the University of Edinburgh
gave Mugabe an honorary doctorate (revoked in July of this year), and in
1994, Mugabe was inexplicably given an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth

What explains the revisionist account of Mugabe? Partly, it is what
might be termed the West’s “Orientalist” view of Zimbabwe. According to this
interpretation, it was only when Mugabe started going after whites that
the world began paying attention. The anti-white violence of the early
2000s took no more than a dozen white lives and the lives of many more black
farm workers — peanuts compared with the thousands of Ndebeles slaughtered
in the mid-’80s.

The British media, which nurture a residual interest in a former colony
where many people of British ancestry still live, helped turn Mugabe
into an international villain when he began killing white people. In the eyes
of Westerners, tribal violence — in which blacks kill other blacks — is
par for the course in Africa, and, besides, Mugabe actually killed far
fewer of his people than many other African despots. That Mugabe did not
immediately ruin Zimbabwe’s economy or force the whites out — as Idi Amin did in
Uganda — is a large part of why the West did not portray him as a
villain. By African standards, he really was not all that bad.

Still, this does not account for the overt whitewashing of Mugabe’s
horrific past. Throughout the Rhodesian civil war in the 1970s, many in the
media attempted to portray Mugabe as akin to Nelson Mandela, the quintessence
of the heroic, international statesman. Months after his election in 1980,
the New York Times opined that “Mr. Mugabe has quickly established himself
as an African statesman of the first rank.” The media already had its villain

Rhodesia’s intractable whites — and portraying Mugabe as just another
African strongman bent on turning his country into a one-party
dictatorship would have complicated the story of good versus evil.

Mugabe was also a brilliant and eloquent spokesman for black African
grievances against colonial rule and for post-colonial aspirations of
independence and self-sufficiency. And it’s true that after taking
office, he preached racial reconciliation rather than retribution, surprising
many whites. But a fully honest accounting also would have recognized Mugabe
to be, whatever his virtues, an authoritarian thug hellbent on acquiring
— and attaining — power at all costs. Mugabe’s destructive behavior over the
last seven years has not been “an aberration” but is perfectly consistent
with the way he has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980.

In 2000, at the start of Mugabe’s seizures of white land, New York
Times columnist (and early Mugabe fan) Anthony Lewis admitted, on behalf of
quite a few journalists, diplomats and academics in the West, “how wrong we
were” about Mugabe. But he offered the qualification, “at least over time.”
Lewis, and everyone else who ever feted Mugabe, was not just proved wrong
about the despot “at least over time.” They were wrong the minute they endorsed

James Kirchick is assistant to the editor in chief of the New Republic
and reported from Zimbabwe last year.

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