- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe, one of Africa’s most combative and enduring rulers whose 24-year reign is under increasing attack at home and abroad, shows no sign of mellowing with age as he turns 80 today.

In the days before his birthday, Mr. Mugabe pledged to fight what he views as the efforts of Britain and the United States to topple his regime while battling “economic saboteurs” at home.

Mr. Mugabe’s tough talk has been accompanied by deepening state repression. Last week, he signed a presidential decree authorizing detention without bail for up to four weeks for political and economic offenses including corruption or money laundering.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change described the decree — the latest in a growing arsenal of repressive laws — as an undeclared state of emergency.

A slight, fidgety man, Mr. Mugabe is sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth-longest-ruling president after Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema, Gabon’s Omar Bongo and Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos.

Once hailed as one of the continent’s great statesmen for his attempts to reconcile blacks and whites after more than a decade of fighting, he has since been condemned as a tyrant for rekindling racial hatred and sacrificing his country’s economy in order to cling to power.

Mr. Mugabe led black guerrillas in the campaign against the white-minority Rhodesian government, but sought to allay the fears of the country’s tiny white minority when he became Zimbabwe’s first black leader after independence from Britain in 1980.

Many whites, who had been told by their leaders that Mr. Mugabe planned to rape their women and shoot their men, decided to stay after he promised that “there is a place for you in the sun.”

With the help of white-owned commercial farms, Zimbabwe prospered and developed into a regional breadbasket. Mr. Mugabe worked to bolster the nation’s health and education systems, making them among the best in Africa.

But the economy soured amid Zimbabwe’s costly involvement in Congo’s five-year war and revelations of corruption.

After voters rejected a constitutional referendum in 2000 that would have consolidated Mr. Mugabe’s powers, ruling party officials accused white commercial farmers of bankrolling his opponents in the Movement for Democratic Change.

The president ordered the seizure of thousands of white-owned farms for redistribution to blacks, touching off more than three years of political violence that has claimed more than 200 lives and hounded tens of thousands of mostly black-opposition supporters from their homes.

The land seizures, coupled with erratic rains, have crippled the country’s agriculture-based economy. Zimbabwe faces record inflation and unemployment, along with acute shortages of food, hard currency, gasoline and other imports.

Mr. Mugabe has repeatedly dismissed rumors of failing health and calls from within his own party to retire.

“The president is as fit as none of his detractors can ever hope to be in their lifetime,” his spokesman, George Charamba, said recently.

Mr. Mugabe was narrowly re-elected in 2002 in a vote that independent observers said was marred by intimidation and vote-rigging. He has since stepped up a crackdown against dissent, arresting opposition leaders and waging lengthy legal battles to shut down the country’s only independent newspaper.

In an interview on the government-controlled television network yesterday, Mr. Mugabe suggested he would retire as president within five years.

“In five years [I will be] here still boxing, writing quite a lot, reading quite a lot, and still in politics. I won’t leave politics, but I will have retired, obviously,” Mr. Mugabe said.

In a bid to clean up his ZANU-PF ruling party before the elections, Mr. Mugabe has announced a new drive to fight top-level corruption. Two senior ruling party officials were arrested earlier this year.

Analysts, however, dismiss the move as political cunning.

“It is all being stage-managed. He is not going to touch the really big guys but punish only the ones he can afford to sacrifice,” said John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe.

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