He started his political career as a died-in-the-wool Marxist Revolutionary promising to usher Zimbabwe into an era of freedom and prosperity. Now after 27 years in office at the ripe old age of 83 years Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s irascible and stubborn president, appears set to die on and in the job rather than give up power, or better still, pass it on to a younger, more energetic leader.
And just as Mr. Mugabe’s advancing age has slowed him down so too has he visited untold misery on his fellow countrymen now reeling under a heavy, stultifying yoke of dictatorship. He’s ruled this populous African nation with an iron fist for 27 years – 20 of those years as an unmovable president now turned dictator. And as his revolutionary zeal soured and turned he’s dragged this once proud nation into the gaping jaws of despair, poverty and desperation while adroitly mixing all the ingredients of a failed state.
Today, Zimbabwe is undoubtedly the sick man of Africa. But if that bothers Mr. Mugabe then he’s certainly not shown it since he remains impervious to any criticism of his rule both at home and abroard. Mr. Mugabe’s tenure in office has been punctuated by near criminal lapses in judgment, a slipping and sliding economic free-fall, and a growing international isolation.
While many are understandably dumbfounded, even confused, as to why a man who would be expected like any octogenarian to enjoy his golden years with friends and family still doggedly clings to political power in an ever-changing Zimbabwe Mr. Mugabe still shows no signs of ever leaving office. Perhaps it is his legendary pride and warped sense of destiny that has led him to see himself as the all-powerful Zimbabwean Messiah who has still not completed “his revolution.”
Or maybe he fears that relinquishing power and not being able with certainty to hand-pick a loyal, trusted successor who would guarantee his immunity from prosecution once out of office is too great a risk to take. Indeed, that would place him in the peculiar position of having to legally answer for many of the atrocities that have taken place under his watch may be yet another motivation to remain in office since retirement under such uncertain circumstances would not make for a calm and quiet old age. If that’s his thinking then he may be right for under his tenure Zimbabweans have been catching hell and then some.
Today in Zimbabwe the HIV/AIDS epidemic is one of near staggering proportions that have contributed to the loss of the country’s most productive sector. Approximately a quarter of the Zimbabwean population of over 12 million in the age group 15 to 49 years have AIDS (2003 official estimates U.S. Census Bureau). Add that to the extreme socio-economic situation and the prevailing and sustained political turmoil and things become bleaker for this suffering people.
So that a combination of Mr. Mugabe’s excesses, political blundering, a collapsed economy and a serious domestic health crisis has made life expectancy in Zimbabwe fall from a high in 2003 of 69 years to now, in 2007, 40 years and by 2010 – just three years away – Zimbabweans will have a life expectancy of just 35 years - one of the lowest in the world.
And the picture of a state in crisis becomes clearer when one considers that more than half of all deaths among children under age 5 are due to AIDS. With the Zimbabwean government’s attention focused on remaining in power at all costs, and killing off any internal opposition to its rule, there is no cohesive, comprehensive approach to health care and its delivery far less a coherent national AIDS policy. Mr. Mugabe has also presided over one of Africa’s highest unemployment indices that have only helped to heighten social tensions as hungry, jobless and hopeless people compete in a cut-throat atmosphere for the meager services and resources available.
Displaced families, record outward migration, and a brutal internal security force answerable only to Mr. Mugabe have helped to highlight and support the now common conclusion that Zimbabwe is a failed state. Certainly, all of the social, political and economic indicators confirm this analysis although many African nations and President Mugabe himself vociferously deny this charge.
So how did a once proud, prosperous and progressive nation become the basket case of Africa? Well, a lot begins with an understanding of Robert Mugabe who made a name for himself in the guerilla anti-colonial liberation war of the 1970s. All around the world people saw him as a Black revolutionary hero fighting to win the freedom of his people from the shackles of British colonialism and a local white racist minority that stole the lands of indigenous Zimbabweans.
Winning the war and gaining independence for Zimbabwe in 1980 was a major achievement for the still-charismatic and utterly enigmatic Mugabe. But there was one problem. The world has changed since the 1980s and colonialism has also adapted and changed its forms even as Mr. Mugabe has remained stubbornly rigid to his positions and failed to compromise, seek common ground on key internal issues and still attacks his political opponents – this time his own people – as if he was still fighting in the bush.
And for all his talk about being a dedicated Marxist or socialist his actions speak otherwise since any casual observation of the now cart-wheeling Zimbabwean economy would immediately reach the conclusion that it is modeled along state capitalism lines that have ejected ordinary, working class and poor Zimbabweans from its ranks, and favored a parasitic, cabal of kleptomaniacs who have gotten rich under Mr. Mugabe’s rule.
Indeed, as Mr. Mugabe’s rule continues to degenerate there is every indication, given the crisis-ridden nature of the government that it now approximates to a loose Ochlocracy – rule by the mob – in a situation where every institution is failing and a barely manageable chaos exists. Under these conditions the president’s political favorites and cronies has raped and pillaged the economy skimming from the top riches and contracts at the government’s expense.
There is no denying that for all his pretensions to invincibility Mr. Mugabe’s legendary stamina is waning. He now appears weak and vulnerable in public proving that the heavy strain of governance over the years has taken its toll. To combat rumors of his failing strength Mr. Mugabe, when he was 78 years old, married a woman 43 years his junior and has fathered three children by her.
Mr. Mugabe is also a wily, cunning politician who should never be underestimated. For example, when his popularity started to slip he resurrected and repackaged his old nationalist agenda of his guerilla war days by opening up the ever- contentious issue of land reform and redistribution painting the white farm-owning minority community as local colonialists who wanted to continue to exploit Black Zimbabweans. And when he unleashed his war-veterans militia against these “enemies of Zimbabwe” the results were short-lived, political gains and nothing more.
Today, the white community has either fled the country and Mr. Mugabe's instutionalized oppression or simply given in to Mr. Mugabe’s demands. With no comprehensive and carefully thought out plan as to what happens after the land seizures the program has been a complete failure. Local Black Zimbabweans unaccustomed to running large-scale farming operations and lacking in managerial and other skills to make things work soon ran these once-prosperous and productive enterprises into the ground. Today, they are back where they started - still in abject poverty, still powerless and still under Mr. Mugabe's irin rule. But this technique enabled Mr. Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party to win the elections in 2000 and 2002.