- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

By Martin Meredith
Public Affairs, $26, 243 pages, frontispiece map

Zimbabwe will soon be in the news thanks to its upcoming elections to be held March 9-10, and "Our Votes, Our Guns" will serve as a proper background to the chaos that is to come. No one needs to have a crystal ball to foresee all this. Not only is it true that in Zimbabwe there is always a fine line between the ballot and the bullet, the man who will be the cause of it all, Robert Mugabe, is desperately attempting to hold onto the power he has always coveted. He finally achieved it in 1980 thanks largely to Margaret Thatcher.
Martin Meredith, an old Africa hand for various British newspapers, gives us the story of the rise and decline and, no doubt, the ultimate fall of Zimbabwe's wannabe president-for-life. Mr. Mugabe himself has little in the way of panache as dictators go. He has no charisma, is a graceless speaker, and was always a loner since childhood. Although the author describes Mr. Mugabe's bookishness, the man shows little sign of having learned anything, except to hold onto power with a little cunning, a lot of brutality and the kind of patronage network that would make Boss Tweed look amateurish.
His critics on the right have always thought of him as a Marxist-Leninist and to be fair Mr. Mugabe has since his student days posed as a serious socialist who would have been welcome anywhere from Moscow to Manhattan.In fact, the Soviets and the Cubans showed little interest, and no wonder. His "socialism" is all lip service.Mr. Mugabe has always craved total power and the creature comforts that go with it. No need for class struggle when a once powerful white minority will do as well as the excuse for unbridled police power. Then again Mr. Mugabe had a bit of help. Many of the tough laws he has used to maintain himself in power were written when the white minority government was giving the orders.
Mr. Mugabe's ruthlessness, as Mr. Meredith details, extends to whites and blacks alike to anyone who might oppose him. Even by African standards, the measures taken were and are fearful. White farmers are terrorized and murdered by Mugabe thugs who style themselves war veterans even though most never saw the wrong end of a gun barrel.Mr. Mugabe's 5 Brigade, trained by North Koreans, turned Matabeleland into a charnel house in the 1980s. A decade later, he turned his murderous attention to the (largely) black opposition in the urban areas as well as the independent media. Even the Catholic Church has not been spared although Mr. Mugabe once acknowledged the Jesuits as his teachers.
Although Mr. Meredith doesn't explore this theme, the great surprise is not Mr. Mugabe's reign of terror, but the persistence of the democratic ethos in Zimbabwe. Why should the white farmers who remained after 1980 and the black oppositionists persist in believing the Westminster model has a future in the heart of Africa? Why, indeed, but their courage in the face of unrestrained brutality is remarkable.
Their grit has not been wholly in vain. Despite Mr. Mugabe's best efforts, he does remain vulnerable. In the parliamentary election two years ago despite massive fraud and intimidation, Mugabe's ZANU-PF barely kept its majority. The upcoming presidential contest could also prove close even with another all-out effort by the regime. Right now there are voices within the governing party suggesting, sotto voce, that the old man ought to retire. Not likely, but Mr. Mugabe is no Fidel Castro, still worshiped by his inner circle, and he probably knows that.
Mr. Mugabe's mediocrity may help explain his inability to maintain a secure hold on power. The bravery of the few is another factor, of course. But so is the exasperation of the many. Two decades after independence, most Zimbabweans are no better off than they were under white rule, where European settlers from the days of Cecil Rhodes grabbed the best land for themselves and gave the indigenous population the leftovers.
That's because the scientific socialist Mr. Mugabe and his crooked cronies have run a once prosperous (by African standards) country into the ground. Today, Zimbabwe can't feed itself and even if he is "reelected," the place could well implode. Already much of the white and black professional class have left, leaving less and less in the way of the human infrastructure that keeps any community functioning.
Will things get any better if Robert Mugabe were to lose the election or simply lose power?Perhaps, but Zimbabwe's history does suggest the tragedy that serves as the author's leitmotif. It may well get plenty of international help at least for awhile but international help has proved less than a stunning success in a continent that has gone wrong for decades.
Of course, if Mr. Mugabe should win another term as president, he will have come close to achieving his ambition of complete power. But he will be king of a dung heap.

Roger Fontaine served on the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration and currently teaches at the Institute for World Politics in Washington, D.C.

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