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.
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.
Even without the threat of arbitrary arrests, soaring inflation means Zimbabwean salaries cannot buy much in stores ridden by shortages. Cross says the minimum monthly wage in industry is 90,000 Zimbabwean dollars. Using the realistic black market exchange rate of at least 16,000 to $1 (not the official rate of ZWN 250 to $1), that is only about $5.50. A 25 fl. oz. bottle of cooking oil costs one-third of that monthly wage.
With such hardships, some 3 million Zimbabweans have braved an electrified border fence to cross into South Africa, which sends back only a small fraction. Many turn to crime: South African police, Cross said, estimate that Zimbabweans commit half of the country's bank robberies.
In his retail store, Cross encountered one penniless 19-year-old Zimbabwean deported from South Africa. He came from a remote village, and his family had selected him-as the best-educated one-to work in South Africa and send home $28 a month. When he reached Johannesburg's slums, he did so by joining a gang and robbing and killing for cell phones.
Does such desperation mean Zimbabwe is ripe for revolution? Cross does not think so. He says the country is too fearful of Mugabe's force: "We have no means of defending ourselves. You're met not with minimum force but maximum force."
Regional leaders have tasked South African President Thabo Mbeki-the man with the most influence over Mugabe-with mediating a solution between the dictator and opposition, but activists and opposition members are skeptical. One local political cartoon said African leaders were applying "pressure" on Mugabe-and pictured them giving him a back massage.
Cross, however, says the little signs matter. The African leaders' emergency summit came together at short notice, showing they are genuinely worried that Mugabe's free-falling Zimbabwe will hurt the region. Mugabe bused in provincial supporters to win the presidential nomination, but he lost his initial request to party colleagues that they tack two years more onto his current term.
Mugabe remains a shrewd politician who knows how to press local racial sore points by blaming Western "imperialism" for Zimbabwe's woes. At the same time, he is an Anglophile absorbed with etiquette. He once proclaimed, "Cricket civilizes people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe. I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen." In the political game, however, Mugabe knows he can get away with barbarism.