The big man

Degrees in Violence: Robert Mugabe and the struggle for power in Zimbabwe

David Blair<em> Continuu

I was in Zimbabwe on the day Robert Mugabe announced that he had lost the popular vote for the first time. It was in February 2000, and the national referendum that had been intended to rubber-stamp sweeping changes to the constitution - including, naturally, extensions to his powers and term of office - had gone against him. The nation held its collective breath as he appeared on national television to concede defeat. Dressed in his usual Savile Row suit, crisp white shirt and dark tie, he spoke quietly and the words that issued forth were calming and conciliatory. He spoke of respecting the will of the people and said it had proved to the world that Zimbabwe was a country "where opposing views and opinions can be found alongside each other peacefully. Let us all, winners and losers, accept the referendum verdict and start planning our way for the future."

It could have been Nelson Mandela speaking. However, to the experienced Mugabe watcher, there were signs that these noble sentiments were concealing incandescent rage: the way his mouth contorted involuntarily, how his eyes flickered between sentences and his hands flapped limply at the end of arms that were rigid with tension. Later, I tried (unsuccessfully) to get my hands on a videotape of that performance, so I could bring it back to Britain and have Anthony Clare examine the twitching, sweating character and perhaps offer an insight into the state of mind of Africa's second-longest-ruling national leader.

As the world now knows, the following day, Mugabe unleashed a destructive campaign of revenge on his people for daring to vote against him. Targeting the groups he blamed for rallying opposition, principally the Movement for Democratic Change and white commercial farmers, he sent his so-called war veterans out into the country to murder, torture and terrorise anyone who spoke out against him. Since then, he has driven the white farmers off the land and set the stage for what, over the next 12 months, will become Africa's next major famine. He continues to mismanage an economy that is now the fastest-shrinking in the world; and he has rammed through all the legislation, and much more, that his constituents voted against, creating a raft of the most repressive laws on the continent.

As I write this, Mugabe is attempting to rig another election, thereby entitling himself to preside over the complete collapse of the country that, at independence in 1980, he acknowledged as the jewel of Africa. From a western perspective, this may seem rather pointless. Our governments tend to screw things up, get voted out of power and then retreat to the opposition benches, the lecture circuit and well-paid advisory positions in the private sector. Why wouldn't Mugabe, now in his 79th year, want to take his ill-gotten wealth, swan around the world a little with his young wife, go on shopping trips to Harrods and stay at Claridge's, his favourite hotel for the past 15 years? Why remain as president when millions of his people are on the verge of starvation as a direct result of his misrule?

Although blow-by-blow accounts of Zimbabwe's collapse under Mugabe are set out in vivid detail in these two books, neither is able to pin down conclusively just why the man keeps going, and why he is so desperate to cling to power. In other words, they do not get inside his head, which is not surprising, as neither author has interviewed the subject in depth. In fact, very few journalists or writers have been exposed to Mugabe for more than a brief interview, and he thus remains one of the great enigmas of modern time.

Here, crucial moments are identified - Mugabe's seizure of power over Zanu-PF in the early 1970s from a prison cell; his ruthless suppression of his Matabele rival Joshua Nkomo and the massacre by his forces of 20,000 civilians in the early 1980s; the referendum reversal in 2000; and, according to Degrees in Violence, the citizen's arrest that Peter Tatchell slapped on Mugabe during a visit to London in October 1999 - all of which seem to have contributed to his increasingly extreme behaviour. However, at no point did I feel I was getting fresh insight into the workings of the man's mind.

That caveat expressed, these are both valuable additions to the post-colonial African library. Although they cover the same span of African history - from 1980 to the present - the books are as different as the authors. Martin Meredith is an old pro, an Africa hand, an author, journalist and commentator whose past works such as The First Dance of Freedom and The Past is Another Country have become basic references for African scholars. David Blair is a young foreign correspondent who made his name covering Zimbabwe for the Daily Telegraph, until he was booted out by Mugabe's Goebbels-like propaganda supremo, Jonathan Moyo, last June. Blair's account has the advantage of being very much a first-hand narrative of events over the past two years: he was among those tear-gassed during a peace march in the centre of Harare; he is able to put flesh on ludicrous but extremely dangerous characters such as the late Hitler Hunzvi, leader of the "war veterans"; and, like so many beleaguered Zimbabweans, he wasted hours in queues at petrol stations as the bankrupt country tried to find the foreign currency to buy fuel.

Blair's book is the vibrant storytelling of a newspaper journalist who finds himself in the middle of an astonishing story; Meredith's is the cool, calm, somewhat distant analysis of a historian. What they both achieve is to document yet another depressing chain of events in post-colonial Africa, and to make one grateful that Robert Mugabe does not have access to weapons of mass destruction. They leave you with the feeling that he would nuke anybody to stay in State House.

Graham Boynton, travel editor of the Daily Telegraph, is the author of Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland: dispatches from white Africa (Random House)