The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe
By Peter Godwin
Hardcover, 384 pages
Little, Brown and Co.
List Price: $26.99
Deep into the night, in pursuit of the westward escaping sun, we fly into a fogbank, where the cold Atlantic breakers curdle upon the warm West African shore below. Consoled, somehow, to have reached the continent of my birth, I lay down my book and fall uncomfortably asleep, my head wedged against the buzzing fuselage.
I am on my way home to Zimbabwe, to dance on Robert Mugabe's political grave. The crooked elections he has just held have spun out of his control, and after twenty-eight years the world's oldest leader is about to be toppled. When I arrive the next evening in Harare, the capital, his portrait is everywhere still, staring balefully down at us. From the walls of the airport, as the immigration officer harvests my U.S. dollars, sweeping them across his worn wooden counter, and softly thumping a smudged blue visa into my passport. From the campaign placards pasted to the posts of the broken street lights, during our feral packs of hollow-chested dogs, he raises his fist into the sultry dome of night, as though blaming the fates for his mutinous subjects. The Fist of Empowerment, his caption fleetingly promises our insect-flecked beams. Somehow, though, his large gold-rimmed spectacles, the little tuft of starched white handkerchief that winks from his brandished clench, and his toothbrush mustache tell a different story. The story of the prissy schoolmaster he once was, a slight, almost effeminate figure, his small, manicured hands given to birdlike gestures. And indeed, if you were casting the role of "homicidal African dictator who fights his way to power and stays there against the odds for nearly three decades," Robert Mugabe wouldn't even rate a call-back.
This is no swaggering askari, no Idi Amin Dada, heavyweight boxing champion of the King's African Rifles, nor some wide-shouldered, medal-strewn Nigerian general. This is an altogether more dangerous dictator — an intellectual, a spiteful African Robespierre who has outlasted them all. Eighty-four years old now, with his dyed black hair and his blood transfusions, his Botox and vitamin- cocktail shots, he has querulously dominated his country for a generation. But now he is on the verge of an exit. Five days ago, presidential elections, which he has fixed with ease in the past, using a combination of rigging, fraud and intimidation, have gone wrong. Zimbabweans have rejected him in such overwhelming numbers that he will finally be forced to accept their verdict.
They have many reasons to reject him. Once they enjoyed the highest standard of living in Africa. Now their money is nearly worthless, halving in value every twenty-four hours. Only 6 percent of workers have jobs. Their incomes have sunk to pre-1950 levels. They are starving. Their schools are closed, their hospitals collapsed. Their life expectancy has crashed from sixty to thirty-six. They have the world's highest ratio of orphans. They are officially the unhappiest people on earth, and they are fleeing the shattered country in their millions — an exodus of up to a third of the population. But throughout this election campaign, Mugabe has remained belligerently unrepentant, blaming the country's ills on the West — Britain, the former colonizer, in particular — and using the tiny number of whites remaining in Zimbabwe as political piñatas. He thwacks them and out pour the stale bonbons of historic blame to excuse his own shattering failure of leadership, his own rampant megalomania.
In a few days, he will meet with his politburo to contemplate his own farewell. I've been anticipating this moment for so long. On my flights across the world to get here, I have reread Gabriel García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch, and relished the scene in which sharp-beaked vultures, maddened by the stink of human carrion, tear their way through the mosquito screens of the imperial palace, alerting the citizens in the city below to the death of the dictator, and allowing their future to begin. My younger sister, Georgina, a broadcaster who now lives in London, is joining me here. We are supposed to be staying at York Lodge, a small pension in Harare's northern suburbs, but when Georgina calls to confirm, the manager brusquely informs her that our rooms are no longer available, and hangs up. Later we find out that the lodge is being raided by the police looking for Western journalists, who are banned from reporting in this country. As Georgina is on the line, the police are arresting the correspondents from the New York Times and the Daily Telegraph.
Instead, Georgina has booked rooms under her ex‑husband's surname at the Meikles Hotel, in the city center. Once, all the journalists stayed there. Now none do. Neither of us is really supposed to be here. We are in double jeopardy: not only from Mugabe's banning of Western journalists, but also because I was once declared an enemy of the state, accused of spying, and Georgina worked for an anti-Mugabe radio station, in London, and she also featured on a list of undesirables, excluded from the country. Beneath my window is a park, African Unity Square. The concrete tables which used to teem with vivid flowers are empty now, their sellers chased away as part of Operation Murambatsvina,
"Clear Out the Dirt," three years ago, when Mugabe— scared by growing hostility toward him in the urban areas — forcibly cleared out "informal housing" and street markets, leaving the cities dull and quiet. His police demolished the shops and dwellings (many of them quite substantial) of more than seven hundred thousand people, whom they dumped on barren land miles away, at the onset of winter, without water or sanitation. In all, this sham "slum clearance" operation devastated the lives of more than three million people.
In the other direction, my view is over a busy intersection, commanded by wildly erratic traffic lights. Sometimes they are resolutely blank. Sometimes they show red or flashing amber to all roads. Oncoming vehicles play a game of chicken, using pedestrians as shields, and auditing a number of factors to determine who goes next. Big scores over small, fast over slow, old over new, dilapidated over luxury, man over woman, black over white. It gets most interesting when the lights, as they quite often do, summon traffic from all directions simultaneously, with a cheery green come-on. Quite regularly, the crunch of metal, the jangle of glass, and the squall of argument summon me to my window to view another accident. Everyone gives way to the frequently passing police pick‑up trucks overloaded with riot-squad officers. The men are terribly young, riot interns really, not yet fully adult, pupas with brand- new blue fatigues and helmets. They remind me of myself at eighteen, still at police training depot, in the same uniform, "riot blues," drafted into service of an earlier regime. I wonder, as we all do, whether these underage gladiators will fire at their own people when ordered.
Excerpted from The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin. Copyright 2010 by Peter Godwin. Published by Little, Brown and Co. All rights reserved.