One could wonder, if you can put aside the cries of starving children, the medicine-free hospitals and inflation of 12,000 percent (officially only 4,500 percent) what was the tipping point for Robert Mugabe? When did the Zimbabwe president begin his descent into madness?
Was it as a boy studying in Christian mission schools in racially-segregated Rhodesia, or was it as a lonely university student in Moscow being fed a diet of anti-colonialism and voodoo economics? Or was it when he grasped the possibilities of absolute power as an acolyte to Julius Nyerere in Tanzania?
Or is it an altogether more sinister and gothic story of love and betrayal; of envy and fall from celebrity?
Here is that tale. When the white government of Ian Smith handed over power to the rebel forces of Mugabe and his fellow guerrilla leader, Joshua Nkomo, as a result of talks held at Lancaster House in London, Mugabe entered a golden period and behaved quite well. He embraced Smith and became the darling of the Western world. At last, an African leader who was up to the job and who was taking over a functioning country with a strong economy, a thriving agricultural sector, and limitless potential.
There were some warning signs, but no one wanted to heed them. The first was Mugabe’s insistence during the peace talks that he and his delegation stay in the finest luxury hotels, while the other participants settled for lesser quarters. “We are not dogs,” he declared, forcing the British government to pick up the inflated tab. Now, he is building for himself the most expensive house ever constructed in Africa.
Another warning sign, blithely ignored by the press as well as the politicians, was Mugabe’s insistence the major newspapers in the country should transfer to the government. But on the whole everyone was happy, including the white settlers who went about their business as usual. Mugabe went about the world collecting honors and approbation.
True, he sent his crack troops into Matabeleland, home of the Ndebele people, traditional rivals of Mugabe’s Shona tribe. But it was faraway, and there was no television coverage (20,000 or more were slaughtered).
The world wanted to love Mugabe and a blemish or two did not matter. The country was a poster for the “New Africa.”
But Mugabe’s days in the sun faded in the l990s. Nelson Mandela, a saintly figure, was released from prison after 27 years of privation. And the world embraced him with passion. Here was a greater hero for the “New Africa,” on the way to becoming the leader of a much larger country. Mugabe had lost his luster–his l5 minutes of fame were at an end. Worse was to come.
Mugabe had been courting the widow of former Mozambiquan leader Samora Machel, Graca. Sadly for Mugabe, Mandela also wanted to marry Graca and did in 1998, after which Mugabe turned against Zimbabwe’s white commercial farmers; attacked homosexuals; and denounced Britain in particular, and the West in general.
There followed one catastrophic decision after another, enforced by bands of thugs calling themselves “war veterans,” although most were too young, or not yet born, at the time of the war. With the aid of his corrupt party henchmen, rigged elections, wholesale corruption, brutal repression and government by fiat, Mugabe has destroyed Zimbabwe. Unemployment is above 80 percent and hundreds of thousands are without food.
In the dock of history, Mugabe will be convicted. But will he face a jury of his peers in his lifetime?
Only one African leader has spoken out against Mugabe, and that was Mandela, briefly, in 2003. Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor has been silent. Yet South Africa is feeling the consequences. It is host to 3 million starving victims of Mugabe’s rule. They get there by walking across a porous border into an uncertain future in a country with trouble enough of its own.
Indeed African leaders, even those at war with each other, have kept an unbreakable code of silence: an omerta Africana. They won’t criticize each other in public–in the ears or eyes of the rest of the world. Even when Ugandan leader Idi Amin was feeding his foes to the crocodiles, he was given a standing ovation by the Organization of African Unity.
Oh, Africa, your drums are muffled.