Photo by Al Jazeera English
When Robert Mugabe came to power in 1980, Britain kind of shrugged. Sure, some of the good old British imperialists probably gathered in The Clermont Club to bemoan the loss of the land formerly known as Rhodesia and its fecund natural resources, but the prevailing opinion in the government was one of “let’s just leave them to it”.
The Left’s perception of events centred around a clever, academic freedom fighter who had liberated Zimbabwe. In a classic case of the Left’s myopic relationship with falling heroes (Hi, Mao! Oioi, Stalin!) this perception was maintained despite the Mugabe regime’s killing of 20,000 people in the Gukurahundi massacre a few years later. Shamefully, international governments and media organisations suppressed the story and it was only really The Observer, then edited by Donald Trelford, that reported on it (despite the objections of then owner Tiny Rowland).
There’s a telling anecdote from the noughties about a Congolese academic who, when asked what would need to happen for the world to take notice of the situation in the DRC, said: “white farmers”. And so it was with Zimbabwe; whitey got smashed and the world began to raise an eyebrow at that corner of the world. In the late 90s economic problems and disaffection among war veterans led to Mugabe going after the land of white farmers and the international community started to actively “disapprove” of the man.
Clare Short, then the British Secretary of State for International Development, told Mugabe that this wasn’t the kind of thing she expected from a fellow socialist and that, as the daughter of Irish Catholic parents, there was nothing Mugabe could teach her about British imperialism. Since then, they’ve really had him on the run.
Mugabe was 89 yesterday and is still in total power. His image abroad has deteriorated to the point where people feel comfortable placing him in the pantheon of irredeemably awful post-Second World War dictators, next to Idi Amin and Pol Pot. He’s gone from Mandela-type freedom fighter to Mobutu-type monster, intent only on feathering his increasingly feathery nest and destroying his enemies. I remember working on an episode of the BBC’s Jeremy Vine Show, in 2007.
During a discussion of the “Mugabe problem”, Jeremy suggested to one of the guests that maybe the British government should, you know, assassinate the old crocodile. The headline “BBC Calls For Mugabe Jihad” ran through my mind, our presenter was suggesting the murder of an international head of state; but nothing happened. Vine’s thirst for blood perfectly represented the wider world’s feelings towards Mugabe. He’s seen, with good reason, as a tyrant who someone should “do something about”.
As you can imagine, Mugabe’s 89th has been much-celebrated by state-backed media in Zimbabwe. The Herald newspaper put out a 16-page supplement dedicated to a variety of congratulatory messages for the dear father. In an editorial, The Herald compared Mugabe to fine wine: “Celebrating his 89th birthday today, President Mugabe is still going strong and is mentally and physically as fit as ever ripening with each passing day like good old wine.” The police joined in, talking up his “unparalleled, principled and intuitive leadership” and admitting to often taking “judicious counsel from his illustrious words”…
All of which is difficult to deride, really; you're not gonna tell a man who's responsible for the death of thousands that he's a prick on his birthday.
Ordinary Zimbabweans are being encouraged to spend 89 minutes on altruistic social programmes in honour of the president’s 89 years. Central bank chief Gideon Gono has given Mugabe 89 Cattle heads to celebrate his 89 years, and a public rally will be held at a stadium in the mining town of Bindura on March 2nd to really kick the celebrations into gear. The organisers of the event have said they plan to raise $600,000 for the celebrations. In a country where the GNI per capita is, according to the World Bank, $660, raising over half a million for a party might be construed as insulting.
Not that this will bother Mugabe. He’s used his birthday to wax philosophical and it makes for great reading. Like a medieval monarch, the president believes he rules by divine right. Yesterday at a birthday party at State House he told guests: “In my small way, this is the task the Lord might have wanted me to fulfil among my people and as I carry the burden of fulfilling it, it being a divine task, I read it as a bidding of God. A commandment that this is how you serve your nation.”
At 89, this devout Catholic despot is feeling blessed, but he’s also feeling lonely. Many of his peers are dead and gone which, given that he’s lived for almost 40 more years than the average Zimbabwean, shouldn’t be a surprise. Reflecting on this, he told his adoring crowd that God is responsible “for the fact that I am 89” and that it is “true that when you get to that stage you cannot avoid thinking that yesterday when I was younger we were many. Some have dropped off. Where are they gone? Why is it that all my friends are gone and my relatives are gone and I continue to linger on? It is not my choice. It is his choice. Painful choice. As you move from stage to stage, there is a kind of loneliness and solitude around you because of the loss of friends, loss of relatives and of very dear ones.”
Dust in the wind. But interesting words too given that there is a feeling among some Zimbabwe-watchers that Mugabe is bored with power and is being prevented from stepping down by his party, ZANU-PF. They’re apparently afraid that a victory in elections this year for their rivals, MDC-Tsvangirai, will lead to a series of days out in the courts for them and their cronies.
With a new and supposedly democratic draft constitution to be voted on in 22 days and elections, which were meant to take place this year, unplanned and throwing up feelings of dread and panic among the populous, it wouldn’t appear to be a great birthday for the president. This week he has banned radios, claiming that they are spreading “hate speech”. A police spokeswoman said that they are being used to “sow seeds of hate within the country”. Mugabe, referred to as “the liberator” on state radio, would appear to be increasingly reactionary and, if his birthday speech is to be believed, sadly lonely. But he’s a sharply clever man with a history of feigning weakness as a means of lulling his rivals into revealing an anti-Mugabe hand. They then, you know, usually die.
Mugabe is obviously a far worse man than his rival Tsvangirai, but he’s smarter and you’d have to be a fool to underestimate him. After all, he’s 89 and he’s been in power for 33 years. I don’t think the shrugging Brits imagined that back in 1980.
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
Read more about Zimbabwe on VICE: