Features

Alone again

Zimbabwe | Isolated by the West and the world, Robert Mugabe maintains his grip on a desperate and fearful nation

Issue: "Don't run, Newt," April 14, 2007

Robert Mugabe has always been a loner. As a child living at a Catholic mission outside Zimbabwe's capital Harare, he imbibed Jesuit discipline and studied voraciously but avoided other children. He is a cold fish who has rarely kept confidantes during his 27 years as Zimbabwe's dictator, save his first wife, Sally, whom he admired and who died in 1992.

Mugabe is more isolated than ever after his violent, month-long crackdown on opponents. When security forces disrupted a March 11 prayer rally and savagely beat opposition party chief Morgan Tsvangirai and some 50 others, the move sparked Western outrage and regional embarrassment. But his counterparts were reluctant to reprimand the 83-year-old, one of the continent's only colonial-era independence fighters still in power. When Mugabe's neighbors summoned him to an emergency summit on Zimbabwe's crisis three weeks later, they let him wax defiant in public.

"Yes, I told them [Tsvangirai] was beaten, but he asked for it," Mugabe said at the two-day conference. He scored more points a day later at an important meeting of his own ruling party, ZANU-PF: Despite mutinous rumblings within, he secured the nomination to run yet again for president in 2008.

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With such victories disappointing many Zimbabweans, the question remains: How long will Mugabe last? The self-controlled survivor is a spry early riser who neither drinks nor smokes. He shops at London's upscale Harrods store and holds six college degrees. And he has orchestrated the economic decline of a once-prosperous nation.

Seven years ago he seized white-owned Zimbabwean commercial farms, which formed the economy's backbone. Since then, annual inflation has reached 1,700 percent, 4 million desperate Zimbabweans have fled across the borders, and millions have died of starvation and disease.

Still, Mugabe hangs on because his truncheon-toting security forces intimidate Zimbabweans and destroy those they cannot intimidate. His well-honed Central Intelligence Organization, or secret police, dates back to British colonial rule. Once it tried to assassinate then--guerrilla commander Mugabe. Now it does his bidding.

Mugabe's army, air force, police, and militias together total about 100,000 members. "He has at his disposal an armed force double the size of South Africa's," says Eddie Cross, an economist who coordinates general policy for Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Cross is descended from Baptist missionaries who came to the country in 1867, some 20 years before Cecil Rhodes' first official column of British settlers arrived.

Since the aborted March 11 rally, police and youth thugs have stormed MDC headquarters, arresting several party officials and accusing them of bombing police stations. At one lawmaker's home they found a gun and two rounds of ammunition, and labeled it bombing equipment. The forces have also abducted party members in the middle of the night in Harare, often stuffing them in cars, driving around the capital, and dumping them out after beatings.

Authorities have arrested at least 100 people in the last month, according to MDC deputy health secretary Kerry Kay. About 15 remain in custody in connection with the bombings, often going days without medical care or access to lawyers and with little food. Officials "know exactly where everybody is," she told WORLD, "and they're taking them out bit by bit." Fear of reprisals led to the fizzling of a trade-union strike on April 3 and 4.

The beatings follow a common pattern too of baton blows on the back, buttocks, and feet, which cause heavy bruising. Kay reports that one arrested opposition leader said police charged into party headquarters demanding to know where he was and saying, "We want to blow his brains out today."

The official also recounted his police station ordeal: "One policeman was grinding his booted foot into my jaw. They put the barrel of a gun into my ear saying they would shoot me. They were taking it in turns to beat me, calling out to each other, 'Next.'" When police released him a day later, he had to walk to Parliament to chair a committee meeting.

Now Kay says she receives abduction reports every day, which precipitate frantic citywide searching at police stations for victims-knowing longer waits mean longer torture-and a rush to get them meals and lawyers. She described March 31 as one of her worst days in the last 10 years, when she went to the High Court to support detained party members.

Though the magistrate ordered medical care for the prisoners, one man lay dying on the floor "awash in his own urine," as an ambulance and stretcher waited. Guards refused to let him go, and the magistrate would not make them follow orders. Kay and others argued 45 minutes for his release; she says he survived only because people began praying over him.

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