- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2011

By Peter Godwin
Little, Brown and Company, $26.99, 384 pages

If tin pot dictatorships were the PGA, Robert Mugabe would be Tiger Woods; Col. Moammar Gadhafi would be a mere Phil Mickelson. It is somewhat ironic therefore, that Col. Gadhafi is under NATO and U.N. attack while Mr. Mugabe continues to terrorize Zimbabwe unhindered. However, life isn’t fair; it’s about trying to club the next croc that is climbing into the boat.

Peter Godwin traveled to Zimbabwe in 2008-09 in hopes that, despite blatant efforts to subvert the election of a strong challenger, he would witness the fall of the brutal Mugabe regime. What he chronicles instead is how the wily old African despot subverted the will of the majority to form a coalition “unity” government that left him fully in control.

Mr. Godwin tells his story in a narrative that takes him back to the old haunts of the Rhodesian countryside where he grew up. Along the way, he meets old friends from happier times, and relates the depressing litany of what happened to them under Mr. Mugabe’s rule. It is a tale of intimidation, torture and horror for what is left of the white population of the former Rhodesian colony, and worse for the brave native Africans who have the courage to stand up to Mr. Mugabe.

Much of what Mr. Godwin describes in the way of torture inflicted on Mr. Mugabe’s unfortunate opponents can’t be described in a family newspaper. Even old ladies going to church are not immune to intimidation; the author courageously intervened in one such incident and because of retaliation, had to leave the country temporarily.

In “The Fear,” Mr. Godwin sketches out Mr. Mugabe’s biography. The scion of an absent father, Mr. Mugabe was an introverted loner and poor athlete. Like many other African “revolutionary” heroes, rather than possessing military leadership or organizational skill, his primary talent seems to have been getting himself thrown in jail. However, he was always good at intrigue, which has prepared him well for a career as a despot.

As many of history’s worst tyrants, Mr. Mugabe began his rule as a benevolent leader, pleading with the former white colonial overlords to stay and help build a thriving, multicultural society. But as he accumulated more and more power, he discovered the truth in the aphorism coined by former Navy Secretary John Lehman, that, “power corrupts, and absolute power is really neat.”

While Col. Gadhafi rules Libya much the way Mussolini ran Italy, with clownish behavior masking the darker side of his rule (until the Libyan showed his true colors by gunning down unarmed protesters in full view of the world), Mr. Mugabe operates more like Stalin.

His worst crimes are committed in the shadows of back urban corners or in the bush where media and Internet coverage is negligible. He has largely flown under the radar of the civilized world. He uses his secret police, the dreaded CIO, and hordes of unemployed revolutionary “war veterans” to enforce what passes for order in Mr. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. The veterans are rewarded with land expropriated from white farmers. Under this barbaric practice, Zimbabwe has gone from the breadbasket of Africa to a net food importer.

Mr. Godwin is an excellent writer. He has been a soldier as well as an author. He is not an embittered postcolonial planter. His parents were liberal members of the white Rhodesian elite, and his mother was a physician who helped treat thousands of black Zimbabweans. One of the bright spots in the book is where the unarmed American ambassador and his governance adviser stand down a group of government thugs engaged in terrorizing citizens. It makes the reader proud to be an American.

Zimbabwe’s future is uncertain. Mr. Mugabe is now the world’s oldest surviving leader. Absent an uprising such as those that have swept Egypt and Tunisia, he will probably die in office. He has not groomed a successor; in fact, he has done the opposite, surrounding himself with toadies and yes-men. When he passes, there will likely be a power struggle among his allies over the scraps of what little is left of value in the country. A post-Mugabe civil war is likely, if not inevitable between democrats and Mr. Mugabe’s surviving thugs.

Mr. Godwin’s book might be designed to shock, but his words have been overtaken by events in the Middle East and North Africa. Our shock threshold has been raised inalterably.

Gary Anderson, an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School, is a retired Marine Corps colonel.

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