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He's always been a tyrant

Those who say Zimbabwe's Mugabe was once a hero are fooling themselves.

September 30, 2007|James Kirchick | James Kirchick is assistant to the editor in chief of the New Republic and reported from Zimbabwe last year.

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 rigueur 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 power.

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 that 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: "ZANU-PF will rule forever."

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