Let's give the old man credit. Robert Gabriel Mugabe, lapsed-Marxist, victorious guerrilla fighter and African statesman, is now 76 years old. When he and his armed supporters finally ousted the nasty racist regime of Ian Smith in Rhodesia 20 years ago he did the world a favour. Smart and tough, he led the largest of three guerrilla forces during the bloody, decades-long independence war and was jailed for ten years without trial by Smith's government. The pugnacious Mugabe was a genuine people's hero.
At the war's end Mugabe negotiated the Lancaster House peace agreement, returning afterwards as President of the new Zimbabwe. The war was won with the support of the black peasant majority who make up nearly 70 per cent of the country's 12 million people. The justice of their case was never in question: whites were less than one per cent of the population yet owned nearly three-quarters of the best farmland.
Mugabe's promise to redistribute land to black farmers was the key to his support. But it wasn't easy to fulfill. The British Government tied his hands at Lancaster House, but worse was the economic collapse brought on by IMF structural-adjustment policies in the 1980s. His government became even more dependent on white farmers who produce most of the country's food and the majority of its cash-crop exports - especially tobacco.
As a result 4,400 white farmers still own more than half the country's best farmland. Promises to resettle a million people have come to naught. The state has bought more than 8.3 million acres of land from white farmers since 1980. But critics of the regime charge that much of it remains idle and that the best land has ended up in the hands of Mugabe's friends and comrades from 'liberation struggle' days. In fact charges of arrogance, brutality, corruption and incompetence have dogged Mugabe for decades.
Though he finally deleted all references to Marxism-Leninism from his country's constitution in 1991, he has never been shy of advocating the 'one-party state' - led of course by his own Zanu party. Initially he was forced to build a coalition with fellow guerrilla leader Joshua Nkomo and his Zapu forces, most of whom came from Matabeleland in the south. But when arms were found in Zapu-owned houses the portly Nkomo was dismissed and his supporters systematically brutalized and killed. Mugabe effectively has his one-party state: 147 of the country's 150 parliamentary seats are filled with Zanu politicians - although elections are pending.
As Mr Nkomo's fate may indicate, Robert Mugabe has an impatient, authoritarian streak. When local reporters last year questioned his decision to intervene militarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) they were whisked off to prison, beaten and tortured. Later, when the Supreme Court asked him to reaffirm the 'rule of law', Mugabe took to the airwaves in an hour-long tirade. He told the judges to resign and attacked white journalists and human-rights activists, vowing to take 'very stern measures' against them.
Homosexuals have become another fixation for the devoutly Christian Mugabe. He has castigated gays as 'sodomists' and 'sexual perverts' and made 'unnatural sex acts' illegal with a penalty of up to ten years in prison. (His preachy moralism was somewhat tarnished when he married his former private secretary in 1996 with whom he had already fathered two children.)
But it is the blatant corruption of Mugabe's administration that ordinary Zimbabweans find so galling. Many of the plum bureaucratic jobs and government contracts have been handed out to his cronies in the armed forces. With predictable results: the Liberation War Veterans' Association recently said it would prefer a military government rather than see the opposition in power.
But Mugabe's costly armed intervention in the Congo has galvanized opposition to his rule and threatens to split the country. With unemployment over 70 per cent and inflation nudging 55 per cent the economic drain is taking its toll. The IMF recently shelved aid programmes worth $340 million as a result of what critics call a wasteful, colonial-style, military adventure.
Mind you, dabbling in the DRC will benefit Mugabe stalwarts among Zimbabwe's black business class. Copper concentrate from the Congo has already begun flowing south and the army recently announced that it is planning a joint venture with the DRC army, including diamond and gold dealing. Doubtless this will cement Mugabe's buddy-buddy ties with his military cronies.
Sources: Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris, June 1997; 'Government crack-down on civil society', Amnesty International news release, 8 February, 1999; Daily Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, 5 November, 1999 & 17 March, 2000.
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