To his brothers-in-arms, he was simply Comrade Bob. Lord Soames, who presided over the change as London’s representative, called him a "splendid chap". Smith, who had kept Mugabe in prison for 10 years, abhorred the idea of majority rule but recognized its inevitability; in the event, his preferred successor was Bishop Abel Muzorewa, a man without revolutionary pretensions who also lacked popular support. In Zimbabwe’s first elections, a largely unexpected landslide catapulted Mugabe into the post of prime minister.
Not surprisingly, the advent of democracy prompted a mass exodus by white Rhodesians, many of whom resettled in South Africa, where they seemed to be no imminent danger of a comparable transformation. But a substantial proportion of whites (including Smith) decided to stay on in Zimbabwe, and found little cause in the short term to regret that decision. However, the new leader’s black opponents had fewer grounds for complacency. The Western demonization of Mugabe did not gain traction until the late 1990s, particularly after he began authorizing the takeover of white-owned farms by landless black war veterans. It is oft forgotten that some of the traits that during the past decade have been ascribed to paranoia or senility were actually first exhibited back in the 1980s, when Mugabe set out to deplete and intimidate the power base of his best-known rival, Joshua Nkomo.
Ostensibly to stave off further violence, Nkomo eventually authorized the dissolution of his Zapu-PF party, advising members to join Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, thereby facilitating a drift towards the latter’s ideal of a one-party state. In a somewhat distorted reflection of Nkomo’s gesture, last week Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), advised followers, in the interests of their own safety, to vote for Mugabe in Friday’s second round of the presidential election. Although his name remained on the ballot paper, Tsvangirai had formally withdrawn from the race on the previous Sunday, before seeking refuge in the Dutch embassy.
It is widely presumed that Tsvangirai decisively defeated Mugabe in the first round of the election back in March; the election commission was persuaded, however, to fiddle with the figures: as a result, although the challenger retained the lead, it was decreed that he fell short of the 50 percent mark, and that a run-off would therefore be required. By pulling out of the second round, Tsvangirai paved the way for a putative Mugabe landslide - but at the same time stripped the electoral exercise of all legitimacy.
A lust for power is not an uncommon trait among leaders of national liberation movements: Nelson Mandela might actually be unique in refusing to retain office beyond a single term. And there may well be cause to ponder the extent to which Western (and particularly British) angst over Mugabe’s misbehaviour relates to the recalibration of his attitude towards white farmers. At the same time, there can be little question that Zimbabwe has been grotesquely mismanaged in political as well as economic terms. For instance, while serious land reforms may indeed have been called for in a country with egregious disparities of wealth, the anarchic farm seizures were politically motivated and economically disastrous, leading to food shortages on a shocking scale.
Cronyism and nepotism are among the distinguishing features of the political system Mugabe presides over, and those who lament the fact that Tsvangirai’s credentials are dubious in some respects should be willing to direct at least some of the blame towards Mugabe, given his long-standing allergy to anyone who could potentially be perceived as a political rival. Whatever his shortcomings, Tsvangirai has morally gained the upper hand during the past year. And Mugabe’s ability to convince Zimbabweans that he continues to deserve a mandate has steadily been depleted amid soaring unemployment and a mind-boggling rate of inflation that runs into millions of percent.
Western sanctions and the legacy of British colonialism are Zanu-PF’s stock excuses for the Mugabe regime’s monumental economic failures. The majority of Zimbabweans no longer accept this explanation. To most of them, the liberation struggle to which Mugabe significantly contributed is ancient history. They need food and jobs, and it increasingly seems that regime change alone can facilitate access to such basic necessities.
A decade or so ago, Mugabe could have retired with some of his dignity intact. That is no longer possible, but a humiliating exit isn’t the only available option. Voices of reason are pointing towards a compromise whereby the president and his closest military and civilian cronies can depart without a fuss, paving the way for an MDC government, possibly in collaboration with remnants of Zanu-PF. If an agreement to that end can be worked out, it may indeed be the least destructive way out of an unsustainable situation. Convincing Mugabe to do the sensible thing will probably require all the powers of persuasion at the command of his friends and neighbours, particularly Thabo Mbeki, whose refusal to publicly criticize the octogenarian Zimbabwean leader puts him at odds with powerful voices within South Africa, including the African National Congress under Jacob Zuma, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and former archbishop Desmond Tutu. Even the mild-mannered Mandela, after a prolonged silence, joined the chorus last week with a reference to Zimbabwe’s "tragic failure of leadership".
Not surprisingly, there have been calls in some quarters for international intervention, including of the military variety. Such a course would be utterly disastrous. Zimbabwe today is a far cry from the exemplary African state envisaged by those of us who shared Bob Marley’s infectious optimism, thanks in large part to the conduct of the Mugabe clique. But it is not beyond redemption, and nor do its multiple afflictions warrant a bitter dose of neocolonialism.