A Predictable Tragedy

An unflinching analysis of how Robert Mugabe, a man once known as an anticolonial freedom fighter, became one of Africa's most hated autocrats, and why so many inside and outside Zimbabwe were long blind to his bloody misdeeds.

A Predictable Tragedy
Robert Mugabe and the Collapse of Zimbabwe

Daniel Compagnon

2010 | 336 pages | Cloth $39.95 | Paper $29.95
History / Political Science
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Table of Contents


1 Authoritarian Control of the Political Arena
2 Violence as the Cornerstone of Mugabe's Strategy of Political Survival
3 Militant Civil Society and the Emergence of a Credible Opposition
4 The Media Battlefield: From Skirmishes to Full-Fledged War
5 The Judiciary: From Resistance to Subjugation
6 The Land ''Reform'' Charade and the Tragedy of Famine
7 The State Bourgeoisie and the Plunder of the Economy
8 The International Community and the Crisis in Zimbabwe
Conclusion: Chaos Averted or Merely Postponed?

List of Acronyms

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

When the Zimbabwean flag was raised officially in the early hours of 18 April 1980, symbolizing the dawn of a new era and the end of a bitter liberation war, who could have imagined then that the crowds cheering their hero—Robert Mugabe—would come to hate him some thirty years later after he led them to starvation, ruin, and anarchy? Who would have expected Zimbabwe to become the ''sick man'' of southern Africa, a security concern for its neighbors, and an irritant in the mind of progressive opinion leaders such as former anti-apartheid lead activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner archbishop Desmond Tutu, who would, in 2008, call for Mugabe's forced removal from power? As we shall see, this disaster should not have come as a complete surprise since there were, from the beginning, many worrying signs of Mugabe's thirst for power, his recklessness, and his lack of concern for the well-being of his fellow countrymen and women, as well as the greed and brutality of his lieutenants in his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).1

Behind the suffering of Zimbabweans today are a series of political myths forged by the new regime and outsiders who, until recently, supported Mugabe's government unconditionally. One of the most enduring was the myth of a democratic multiracial Zimbabwe led by an urbane, educated politician—the mirror image of the bloodthirsty guerrilla leader portrayed in the Western press in the 1970s. Everyone marveled how this bright and magnanimous statesman extended political pardons not only to his rivals in the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) but also to former Rhodesian foes. Even the cynical massacre of thousands of civilians in the early 1980s in Matabeleland in western and southwestern Zimbabwe—awareness of which the Zimbabwean government was able to suppress—did not break the charm.2 Rhodesian leader Ian Smith's illegal white minority regime was despicable on many counts, but many ordinary black people in Zimbabwe realized years ago that Mugabe was no lesser evil, especially as the memories of racial discrimination withered away and social conditions worsened dramatically.3 However, activists and intellectuals who had opposed Smith's regime and risked death or prison wanted desperately to believe that Mugabe was nothing but good news. Peace and salvation were coming at last and ''majority rule'' was to set Zimbabwe on the road to prosperity. Openly criticizing the ruling party was perceived for long as siding with the enemy—that is, with imperialism and the apartheid regime in South Africa. Even political opponents failed to analyze the nature of ZANU-PF domination and were repeatedly outmaneuvered by Mugabe.

Many Western journalists, diplomats, political analysts, and researchers familiar with the situation on the ground chose to disregard some inconvenient facts and picked the stories they wanted to believe in. Academics either remained silent or took for granted the Zimbabwean government's stance, for reasons best known to them.4 The belief that ZANU's liberation war in the 1970s was a legitimate and noble cause somehow blunted the analytical edge of scholarship when it came to Mugabe's power techniques. Issues of widespread corruption and political murder remained taboo and many continued to hail Mugabe as Africa's liberation icon—although there were a few exceptions.5 Hence, reports produced by human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) over the years (in particular the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP)/Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) report on the Matabeleland massacres, which was met with a deafening silence by the same academics when first released in 1997) serve better to understand the nature of the ZANU-PF regime than most academic journals and books. It would require an entirely different book to fully explore the root causes and the extent of self-deception in Western academic and political circles on the nature of Mugabe's regime. Obviously, such bias prevented a sound understanding of the situation in Zimbabwe for more than two decades.

In the creation of this ideological smokescreen, the political mythology underlying the liberation war's official history played a pivotal role. Mugabe and other ZANU-PF leaders portrayed themselves as liberators who had given birth to modern Zimbabwe. Being entrusted with the task of nation building and eliminating the remnants of the settler state suffices to legitimize the ruling party's never-ending grip on state power.6 Consequently, black Zimbabweans have to feel indebted forever to ruling party leaders for the ''freedom'' the nation has enjoyed since 1980. In this thoroughly reconstructed history, the contribution of ZAPU and other forces is minimized or blatantly ignored, and the role of the British government in sponsoring the Lancaster House agreement is downplayed. The ruling party ZANU-PF propagated the fiction that the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), its military
arm, won the war on the battlefield and therefore the right to rule.

The war hero cult played an important part in this discourse. Former guerrillas—and many less genuine freedom fighters but true ZANU ''big men''—were granted the official status of national and provincial heroes, and burial ceremonies provided recurrent occasions to rehearse the ruling party's contribution.7 However, through the years, the granting of this status—with the pension accruing to the family—was increasingly perceived as tainted by political favoritism. Known nationalist leaders outside the ruling party, such as the late Ndabaningi Sithole (the first ZANU president) and the late Enoch Dumbutshena—repeatedly labeled ''traitors'' by government propaganda—were denied a burial in the national Heroes' Acre. On the contrary, Mugabe's henchmen in the first decade of the twenty-first century (such as Border Gezi or Hitler Hunzvi), who had a limited or nonexistent liberation war record, were buried there, ostensibly rewarded for their contribution to the ''Third Chimurenga'' (the regime's code name for violent farm invasions and subsequent political repression since 2000).

Beyond reward and retribution, this policy betrays a self-serving appropriation and political manipulation of the country's history. The nationalist posture remained to this date a powerful political resource for Mugabe and ZANU-PF, both locally and on the international scene, and the vindictive nationalist discourse on stolen land, fallen heroes, and the party's outstanding contribution to ''liberation'' was recycled at every election after 1980. Not only was this militant discourse a means to mobilize supporters and silence critics but it provided a convenient excuse to sideline embarrassing issues such as poverty alleviation and bad governance. To a large extent, the political developments unraveling since February 2000 constitute the culmination of this exhausted strategy.