One Sunday afternoon last month, members of Zimbabwe’s opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, were gathering—for a prayer meeting, they said—when President Robert Mugabe’s security forces descended on them, firing tear gas, water cannons, and bullets. One person was killed, and at least fifty others were injured after being taken into custody. When the M.D.C. leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, a former trade-union activist, arrived at the police station, Mugabe’s men repeatedly bashed his head against a wall, then detained him, too. Mugabe has always been rough with the M.D.C., a party formed eight years ago to challenge his dictatorial powers, and Tsvangirai has been arrested and knocked around many times before, but this time he was badly disfigured and his skull severely lacerated. These are actions that most dictators would cover up, but several days later Mugabe held a public rally to commend the police for their use of force, and to warn Tsvangirai and his followers that they could expect more violence. True to his word, Mugabe unleashed his goons on a nationwide rampage that resulted in hundreds of his opponents and critics being dragged from their homes and offices and beaten.
The shamelessness of Mugabe’s brutality—and his gloating pride in it—aroused the attention of the international press and diplomatic corps. But the story of Zimbabwe’s violent misrule and national degradation is not a new one. Mugabe, who is eighty-three, came to power in 1980 as a leader of the long and bloody liberation struggle against the white-supremacist regime of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, and he has always used his hero’s mantle as cover for terrorizing his opponents, real and perceived. He has murdered thousands of his people and deprived the rest of meaningful freedom. In the process, he has transformed one of Africa’s most prosperous and promising countries into one of the poorest and weakest on earth.
Zimbabwe’s inflation rate is already more than seventeen hundred per cent, the highest in the world, and the International Monetary Fund warns that it could exceed five thousand per cent by year’s end. Unemployment is around eighty per cent, and the average income is less than a dollar a day. With chronic food shortages and no medical system left to speak of, life expectancy has plunged from sixty years, in 1990, to less than thirty-seven years (the shortest anywhere), while the infant-mortality rate has increased by more than fifty per cent. Not surprisingly, as many as three million Zimbabweans—a quarter of the population—have fled the country. Yet last week Mugabe’s information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, declared, “There is no crisis whatsoever in Zimbabwe.”
Mugabe has sworn that he will not relinquish power before his hundredth birthday. He is obsessed with the fiction that he is Zimbabwe’s legitimate leader, and his assault on his nation—an attempt to control his people by squeezing the life out of them—has steadily intensified since the emergence of the M.D.C. He seems to be punishing Zimbabweans just for considering that he could be replaced. But Mugabe, who is as clever as he is crude and perverse, blames his opponents for the unrest. According to his rhetoric, they are terrorists and agents of white imperialism, and whatever hardship the country may be enduring is the price of its ongoing fight for freedom. “The opposition is always calling for change, change, change,” Mugabe said at his mid-March rally. “I am not pink. I don’t want a pink nose. I can’t change. I don’t want to be European. I want to be African.” Tsvangirai, at the funeral for his murdered colleague, said of Mugabe, “I think he needs psychiatric help.”
Since 2002, Mugabe has faced censure and sanctions from the United States and Europe, but he treats these rebukes as badges of honor. (One consequence of America’s diminished authority since the invasion of Iraq has been that bullies around the world feel emboldened to scorn the West; Mugabe likes to tell his critics to “go hang.”) He has also been able to take comfort in the fact that African leaders have supported him, even as he insults them by insisting that his thuggery and his many failings are the expression of his African authenticity. South Africa, the regional power, has for years touted a policy of “quiet diplomacy” toward Zimbabwe—a euphemism for silently indulging Mugabe’s crimes and giving him a stamp of legitimacy when he has stolen elections. Why South Africa should provide this service is a matter of speculation. No doubt, President Thabo Mbeki and, to a degree, his predecessor, Nelson Mandela, don’t want to dishonor a fellow liberation leader. Yet they have dishonored themselves by failing to stand up to an oppressor who is as contemptuous of his people as Ian Smith was.
Still, last week, when Mugabe was summoned to account for Zimbabwe’s plight at a meeting of the region’s heads of state in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, it was widely reported that he had exhausted his neighbors’ indulgence. Given the gratuitousness and the extremity of Mugabe’s latest fits of violence, coupled with the fact that thousands of refugees were braving the crocodile-infested Limpopo River to enter South Africa illegally, the prevailing story in the press and among diplomats was that the dictator was finally approaching his endgame. Even if that were true, there is no obvious way to prepare a democratic succession of power. The resilience of the M.D.C. is impressive, but it is a weak party, inexperienced and internally divided, and the only alternatives are rival factions within Mugabe’s Zanu-PF Party, which are controlled by his old enforcers—former leaders of the Army and the security forces—who have grown immensely rich in the course of the country’s impoverishment.
Mugabe, meanwhile, remains defiant. He has begun campaigning for another term as President, and as he left for Dar es Salaam his police surrounded M.D.C. headquarters and again detained Tsvangirai and other members of the Party’s leadership. Mugabe said that he was looking forward to the solidarity of his fellow African leaders, and he flew home boasting, “We got full backing.” They did ask him about Tsvangirai, and Mugabe reported, “I told them he was beaten but he asked for it.” The meeting concluded with the leaders appointing Thabo Mbeki to encourage dialogue between Mugabe’s government and the opposition, and issuing a call for Western governments to lift their sanctions, while demanding nothing in exchange. “He will continue to tell the West to go hang,” Mugabe’s spokesman explained, but it was obvious that it was Zimbabwe that was being left to the gallows.