At Large

African Suicide

Robert Mugabe survives, in part because other African leaders refuse to act against him.

By 4.16.08

It was bound to happen. If Robert Mugabe ever lost an election to remain president of Zimbabwe, he would deny it ever happened, obstruct the result, or simply call for a recount after he had refined his methods of manipulating the result. And all of the above has happened.

The final chapter of Mugabe's dictatorial 28-year-reign as head of government is not yet ended, but the process of the denouement is as ugly as expected. No matter what happens in the next few weeks, short of his death, Mugabe will continue his struggle for personal control of his country.

There should be no mistake about this man. He has all the qualities of egocentricity, paranoia, and hatefulness that the many caricatures of him suggest. At the same time, the 84-year-old Mugabe remains acutely clever and cunning. What a combination!

Young Robert was always a bright boy. The Franciscans and Jesuits who trained him in his early years were convinced he would be one of their "winners." They were right, of course, but not quite in the manner they envisaged.

Mugabe's early political training, not unlike Patrice Lumumba's, was straight out of the Soviet-written Afro/Asian solidarity handbook. He further developed his contacts through his days in Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana; one of many up-and-coming African leaders who sojourned as guests of the increasingly pro-Russian and socialist Ghanaian leader.

Mugabe learned a great deal from Nkrumah's political mistakes in dealing with other African leaders. But he learned even more in terms of what was needed to maintain authority at home. From the beginning of his taking power in 1980, he did what all dedicated dictators do. He built an unswervingly loyal military and security force.

Ubiquitous uniformed and plain-clothes security elements have kept Robert Mugabe in power. Among other things, these troops have been convinced by their officers in recent days that the departure of their "true president" will mean the disbandment of their force and force them into the poverty that strangles the rest of Zimbabwe. This is a powerful motivating factor.

Efforts have been made by people close to the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, to assure the ranking officers of the army and police forces that their professional services will remain intact after the departure of Mugabe. So far there is no sign of serious defection. Mugabe and his government party, ZANU-PF, have gained the time to regroup and work toward a recount of the recent elections that clearly tossed them out of both presidential and parliamentary office.

If Morgan Tsvangirai had the toughness of Mugabe, he would have a better chance of leading his party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), to dominance over the aging Mugabe. But therein lies the problem. The dictator is still the smartest and most ruthless politician in Zimbabwe -- and maybe in all of Africa.

Mugabe has been able to keep his fellow African leaders from exerting the pressure necessary to place Tsvangirai in power. It seems as if the other leaders are mesmerized by the old revolutionary. President Thabo Mbeki, himself holding on to political power by a thread in South Africa, said after a well-publicized meeting in Harare with Mugabe: "There is no crisis."

In the end, Robert Mugabe has proved that democracy itself does not prevent totalitarianism. Zimbabwe has had a fully functioning representative government for many years now. This process has been exploited by a clever autocrat assisted by willing party faithful and a jackbooted security service.

Even the Congo's deadly dictator Mobutu in the 1970s was periodically "voted" into office, as have been other African leaders via so-called democratic processes. It's not the name of the process that ensures equality but the character of the people controlling the process itself. American municipal machine politics has confirmed that many times. Eventually the people take back their government, and the hope is that time may be arriving for Zimbabwe.

Mugabe will continue to exploit any aspects of the democratic process available to him -- including declaring an emergency if necessary. The wild card remains the extent, if any, of outside pressure; the continued hesitancy of Morgan Tsvangirai to assume leadership; and most important, the maintenance of the loyalty of the military.

In the meantime, Zimbabwe's population suffers under oppressive economic mismanagement, an incredible 100,000% inflation and a total lack of civil direction. When will Africa help itself?

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.