The Resilient Robert Mugabe

The gun, the bullet, and the fist are Mugabe’s trusted methods of statecraft. He won't be afraid to continue to use them to stay in power.

National Heroes Acre, an imposing martial monument about ten kilometers west of Harare’s city center, holds the graves of the favored icons of Robert Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

The shrine, designed in the shape of an AK-47, has a tomb of the unknown soldier, a towering obelisk, and other harsh polygonal structures made of black granite, all of which give the place a brutal, authoritarian ambience.

Locals, with the help of North Koreans, constructed the site to honor the protagonists of the lengthy guerrilla war that won Zimbabwe its independence from the racist, minority white Rhodesian regime.

North Korean officers later trained soldiers who would be deployed in the south and west of the country in a campaign that resulted the deaths of twenty thousand suspected anti-government victims among the Ndebele community.

While the shrine has “national” in its name, it really belongs to ZANU-PF elites; while it is supposed to be a repository of national memory, a commemoration of what is best about Zimbabweans, it instead displays ZANU-PF’s hegemony over the country.

In a speech there last month, Mugabe attacked his latest opponent, Evan Mawarire. There was nothing particularly remarkable about what Mugabe said; it was business as usual for a president who has successfully fought off political opponents for the last thirty years.

Zimbabwe’s One Percent

On July 19, the family and friends of former chief secretary to the cabinet Charles Utete, ambassadors, ZANU-PF politicians, party supporters, cops, and soldiers, gathered at the shrine to bury the man who was Zimbabwe’s top civil servant from 1980 until he retired in 2003.

Politicians often use state funerals as political events, announcing policy decisions, excoriating their former colonizers, or poking fun at British “surrogates” in Zimbabwe being used to foment “regime change.” So Mugabe used his eulogy to launch an attack on Mawarire.

“The Mawarires, I don’t even know him, and those that believe in that way of living in our country, well, are not part of us in thinking. They are not part of us as we try to live together . . . ” he rambled, earning applause.

I don’t know if he is a man of religion. A man of religion will preach the biblical truth. First Corinthians, what does it say? Love one another. Not destroy another. So beware of these men of God; not all of them are true preachers of the Bible.

Mawarire, a thirty-nine-year-old clergyman in one of the many evangelical churches that have sprouted in Zimbabwe, started the citizen movement #ThisFlag.

He caught the public’s imagination in April when he released a video questioning whether the national flag had any personal significance for the majority of Zimbabweans.

The natural riches that the flag’s colors represent — yellow for its vast mineral wealth, green for its vegetation and abundant crops — does not, Mawarire noted, reach the majority of citizens.

Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans will this year require food aid. The country’s manufacturing base has been decimated. As a result, most products, including basic groceries like milk, are imported from South Africa.

A month before Mawarire’s video, Mugabe himself admitted that around $15 billion in diamond revenues from the past half-decade or so had disappeared.

The response to the scandal has been odd: no one has been charged or arrested. Instead, Mugabe consolidated the mines under government control — shutting down the private companies who currently run them and whom he blames for the $15 billion in missing funds.

But there’s no guarantee that anyone outside of ZANU-PF will see a penny of the massive wealth pulled out of the ground.

On top of this, the government has been unable to pay its workers — including soldiers and cops — on time. Every month, paydays are pushed forward as the government scrounges around for scarce US dollars, which it adopted in 2009 when maintaining the virtually worthless Zimbabwean dollar became untenable.

Long-suffering Zimbabweans would perhaps buy the government’s claims that Western sanctions cause all the country’s ills if ministers and other elites led lives that resembled the rest of the citizens’.

But recent reports suggest that the government has just bought $200,000 Range Rovers for some of its ministers. When one was asked to comment, his riposte was, “I am a minister. Am I expected to walk around the city on foot?”

One of the country’s co-vice presidents clocked more than five hundred days in a five-star hotel that costs the state $1,000 per night. He has refused to live in the $3.5 million, government-owned house because — at least according to the media — it does not live up to his standards.

And earlier this year, Mugabe’s pregnant daughter flew to Singapore to give birth, presumably because no hospital in Zimbabwe is good enough. Mugabe himself doesn’t use local hospitals, also traveling to Singapore whenever he’s sick.

No Country for Young Men

Zimbabwe’s political situation changes so rapidly that it’s difficult to keep track of which group, citizen movement, or association has most recently fallen out with the ninety-two-year-old president.

But last month’s communiqué from the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, the ex-guerrilla’s group, might mark a decisive turning point in the country’s future.

In Zimbabwe, military history is crucial to political power. The nation specifically privileges one strand of history — that of the ruling nationalists — over all others.

However in the last two decades this narrative has radically narrowed. Terence Ranger, the late Oxford historian, called this “patriotic history,” noting how it no longer “celebrate[s] aspiration and modernization,” but focuses only on resistance.

In this version of the nation’s origin, you could argue, Mugabe descends directly from Nehanda, Kaguvi, and other heroes of the 1896–97 war against Cecil John Rhodes and other settlers.

That war is known as the first chimurenga, the Shona word for revolutionary struggle. The guerrilla war of the 1970s, when Mugabe gained power, was the second chimurenga. And in the early 2000s, the president declared the invasion and acquisition of white-owned farms the third phase of chimurenga.

The ex-guerrillas’ July statement challenges this narrative. The war veterans note Mugabe’s “deliberate neglect and abandonment . . . of the masses, who are the foundation upon which the liberation war was fought and won” and remind him that he is in their debt.

When Mr. Robert Gabriel Mugabe arrived in Mozambique, he walked in to join those of us who were already armed and prosecuting the war as political soldiers. He was not the president of the party ZANU (PF), but we made him so, thinking he was one of us.

The document’s censorious nature echoes the Mgagao Declaration, issued from a Tanzanian guerrilla camp in October 1975, which attacked all of Mugabe’s rivals and paved the way for his ascent to party leadership.

Not even Joshua Nkomo, sometimes referred to as “Father Zimbabwe” because of his pioneering work as a nationalist and trade unionist, was spared. He served as president of Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), the party from which Mugabe and others broke away to form ZANU.

The declaration called Nkomo’s move to hold a summit in Salisbury (Harare’s former name) “reactionary and divisive,” then went on to dismiss founding ZANU president Ndabaningi Sithole, Abel Muzorewa — cleric and co-president of a short-lived compromise republic named Zimbabwe-Rhodesia — and the radical nationalist James Chikerema.

The statement claimed that they “have done nothing to promote the struggle for the liberation of Zimbabwe” and “have no interest [in] the revolution . . . but only their personal interests.” Mugabe, on the other hand, had proved to be an “outstanding” leader:

He has demonstrated this by defying the rigors of guerrilla life in the jungles of Mozambique. Since we respect him the most, in all our dealings with the African National Congress [an umbrella body for nationalist parties from the 1970s], he is the only person who can act as middleman. We will not accept any direct discussions with any of the leading members of the ANC we have described above. We can only talk through Robert Mugabe to them.

Thanks to the declaration, Mugabe won favor with former guerrilla leader and Mozambican president Samora Machel, whose country provided the rear base from which ZANU guerrillas launched incursions into Rhodesia.

Until then, Machel had not warmed to Mugabe, the bookish and bespectacled leader who had just joined the war effort in Mozambique after a ten-year stint in a Rhodesian jail.

Considering this background, it is no surprise that Mugabe was shocked by the communiqué. “This is not the way of the Soldier,” blared a frothy front-page editorial in the Herald, a state-owned weekly.

Mugabe also called an impromptu gathering, summoning war veterans and their leaders from around the country to show solidarity with the elderly leader.

A choir dressed in party regalia sang nationalist songs, which mostly praised the ruler and his tenure. Although the meeting was supposed to be for veterans, most of them now in their sixties, a multitude of young people — many wearing party t-shirts issued for this or that ZANU-PF event — filled out the crowd.

That so many young people attended a daytime event on a Wednesday makes the country’s rampant unemployment — estimated by some to be around 80 percent — visible.

On stage, the master of ceremonies railed against his fellow ex-guerrillas. “Our meeting is to [ensure] that the president remains in power forever,” he said, to applause. “We chose president Mugabe in 1980. You are now being told about a Mgagao 2 [but] we say Mgagao cannot choose [the] leader of a country. It’s the people who choose a president,” countered the party man.

When Mugabe went on stage to address the assembled, he was clearly rattled. He decried interfering foreign missions, churches that were involving themselves in politics, and, uncharacteristically, the war veterans themselves.

In the crowd, a man in a filthy checked jacket drew the crowd’s attention. His face was scarred and withered, but you couldn’t mistake his youthfulness. He was, certainly, not more than twenty-five.

As the slogans and praise poems resounded over the public address system, he waded his way through the crowd, seemingly oblivious to the politics that made the air noticeably thicker. His slow and deliberate steps seemed like an exercise in meditation.

He was heavily intoxicated, probably high on musombodhiya, an illicit kill-me-quick spirit sold in Harare for fifty cents. He had just urinated on himself and some of the assembled were having fun at his expense, asking him to pose as they took pictures of him.

There are thousands of others like him, who have Harare’s open skies for roofs, its mangled pavements for beds. They have no future or plans, except how to get a dollar to get high and insulate themselves from the brutality of living in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

This is no country for young men.

You could say that of all the thousand attacks on his legitimacy, those from the war veterans — a loyal group that has always backed him — have annoyed Mugabe the most.

Beyond the rally, he also had Douglas Mahiya, the group’s secretary for publicity, arrested and charged with undermining the authority of the president. Further arrests of other ex-guerrilla leaders ensued.

But the veterans don’t stand alone in their opposition to the president. In the last few months, cross-border traders — angry at the government’s arbitrary ban of South African grocery imports — burned a government-owned warehouse.

Stern Zvorwadza, chair of a vendors’ union, has been leading protests across Harare, while a movement known as Occupy Africa Unity Square took up residence opposite Parliament and workers — including civil servants — stayed away from work in a one-day strike to demonstrate their disapproval of Mugabe’s leadership.

The president has withstood civil unrest before, but not without the ex-guerrillas’ support. For example, when opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai rose in the late 1990s as Mugabe’s most formidable challenger, the president paid the war veterans a huge lump sum to back him in the attritional elections of 2000, 2002, 2005, and 2008.

In the run-up to the vote, dozens were killed, thousands were beaten, and hundreds of thousands of farm workers were displaced.

In 1976, Mugabe said:

Our votes must go together with our guns. 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.

If Mugabe still believes in the indivisibility of guns and votes, the ex-guerrillas were his most faithful foot soldiers.

A New Chimurenga?

In the late 1980s, Edgar Tekere, founding member of ZANU, fell out with Mugabe and called for another revolution to replace him. “There will not be another revolution in this country. The only revolution in Zimbabwe was the ZANU-PF revolution,” Mugabe said at the time.

Today, the ex-guerrillas, Mawarire, and Zvorwadza play Tekere’s role. But there’s a key difference: when Tekere called for Mugabe’s displacement, Zimbabweans still saw ZANU-PF as a national movement. Even though Mugabe held power, he hadn’t turned into the absolutist demigod he is now.

Something like the current push to have his wife Grace Mugabe succeed him would have been unthinkable at that time. But it’s not about the country anymore, not even about the party; it’s about him and his family.

When asked in the mid 1990s if she had plans to go into politics, Grace Mugabe replied, “I do not think I would like to be a politician, I have children to look after. But I look forward to working on various charity organizations. I will try and lead a normal life as much as possible.”

But by 2014 — when the University of Zimbabwe awarded her an “earned” PhD for which she didn’t write a thesis, and the year Mugabe appointed her to the Politburo, the party’s highest decision-making body — she said, “They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?”

A few months ago, Mugabe himself said:

Your blood relatives are different from your associates in politics, which is a profession of friends. Politics is about sharing the same interests at [a particular moment] and you will be playing hide and seek, fighting each other; yet your blood relatives will stand by you till death, that is why I value my relatives.

If Emerson Mnangagwa, the embattled deputy president who the ex-guerrillas hope will succeed Mugabe, doubted where he stands, this statement should clarify things.

As there is no left to speak of, people are placing their faith in what is known in Zimbabwe as the “third way”: a loose coalition of the old opposition, symbolized by Tsvangirai; the ubiquitous church people; citizen movements; the youth; and people who have been expelled from ZANU-PF.

You could say these disparate groups will organize under an all-embracing slogan of “Anyone But Mugabe.”

Even if Mugabe is beat in 2018, when elections are due, it’s unlikely he will accept defeat. Mugabe has boasted before that he has “degrees in violence” and there is no way the vote will dislodge him from office.

The gun, the bullet, and the fist are Mugabe’s trusted methods of statecraft. In 2008, it is widely believed that he lost the elections and delayed the release of the results, in which time the poll outcome was changed to enable a re-run in which Mugabe sent out soldiers and war veterans to pummel the opposition.

Citing the violence, Tsvangirai opted out of the election, which Mugabe then “won.”

No one can say for sure how the current agitation will pan out but what is clear is this: after it all, Zimbabwe won’t just be a country for one old man.