By James Kirchick
September 30, 2007
As Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, presides over what might be the most rapid disintegration yet of a modern nation-state, it has become de rigueur for journalists, politicians and academics to offer what has become a near-universal analysis: Mugabe, who has ruled his country uninterrupted for 27 years, was a promising leader who became corrupted over time by power.
This meme was popularized not long after Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms in 2000. Four years ago, in response to these raids, the New York Times editorialized that "in 23 years as president, Mr. Mugabe has gone from independence hero to tyrant." Earlier this week, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that "I'm just devastated by what I can't explain, by what seems to be an aberration, this sudden change in character."
The characterization of Mugabe as a good man gone wrong extends to popular culture as well. In the 2005 political thriller "The Interpreter," Nicole Kidman played a dashing, multilingual exile from the fictional African country of Matobo, whose ruler was once a soft-spoken, cerebral schoolteacher who liberated his country from a white minority regime but became a despot. Mugabe certainly understood the likeness; he accused Kidman and her costar, Sean Penn, of being part of a CIA plot to oust him.
But this popular conception of Mugabe -- propagated by the liberals who championed him in the 1970s and 1980s -- is absolutely wrong. From the beginning of his political career, Mugabe was not just a Marxist but one who repeatedly made clear his intention to run Zimbabwe as an authoritarian, one-party state. Characteristic of this historical revisionism is former Newsweek southern Africa correspondent Joshua Hammer, writing recently in the liberal Washington Monthly that "more than a quarter-century after leading his guerrilla army to victory over the racist regime of Ian Smith in white-minority-ruled Rhodesia, President Robert Mugabe has morphed into a caricature of the African Big Man."
But Mugabe did not "morph" into "a caricature of the African Big Man." He has been one since he took power in 1980 -- and he displayed unmistakable authoritarian traits well before that. Those who were watching at the time should have known what kind of man Mugabe was, and the fact that so many today persist in the contention that Mugabe was a once-benign ruler speaks much about liberal illusions of African nationalism....
In 1984, Mugabe imprisoned Methodist Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who had won the 1979 multiracial election boycotted by Mugabe, for 10 months without charge, falsely accusing him of conspiring against Zimbabwe.
And over several years in the early 1980s, Mugabe executed what arguably might be the worst of his many atrocities, a campaign of terror against the minority Ndebele tribe in which he unleashed a North Korean-trained army unit that killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people.
Yet, even in the midst of these various crimes, Mugabe never lost his fan base in the West. In 1986, the University of Massachusetts Amherst bestowed on Mugabe an honorary doctorate of laws just as he was completing his genocide against the Ndebele. In April of this year, as the campus debated revoking the degree it ought never have given him, African American studies professor Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, who had been in favor of honoring Mugabe two decades ago, told the Boston Globe: "They gave it to the Robert Mugabe of the past, who was an inspiring and hopeful figure and a humane political leader at the time." Similarly, in 1984, the University of Edinburgh gave Mugabe an honorary doctorate (revoked in July of this year), and in 1994, Mugabe was inexplicably given an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II....