The New Statesman Profile - Robert Mugabe

Once hailed as a new African hero and a non-racist, his behaviour is now that of the paranoidal pers

One of the more unpleasant features of the horrific situation in Zimbabwe is Ian Smith sitting on his large, unassailed farm, smirking and saying: "I told you so." But there is a direct connection between the lawlessness of white-ruled Rhodesia under Smith's UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) regime and the lawlessness of black-ruled Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe.

The country Mugabe inherited at independence in 1980 was riven with problems. Two of the most acute dilemmas were the landlessness of the peasantry and the total control of the economy by the white minority - inequities that are difficult to rectify without creating other injustices and inflicting short-term damage to the economy.

Yet a transition with similar problems was managed in South Africa and Namibia. Why not in Zimbabwe? Mugabe, when he became president, was hailed as a new African hero, respected as an intellectual and sincere Catholic, and admired as a non-racist who, on coming to power, assured the former white Rhodesians that they were welcome to stay in the new Zimbabwe.

Moreover, after independence, Zimbabwe achieved a growing economy, a multi-party parliament, an independent judiciary (though never a free press) and a society in which relations between whites and blacks were tolerant enough for them to share, for example, a mainly white cricket team that was elevated to Test match status.

Why did it go wrong? Was it all down to Mugabe? What is too often underplayed in political analysis is the role of the paranoidal personality, which is not the same as clinically defined paranoia. Stalin was a classic example of the latter: an Indian ambassador once managed to leave an interview in possession of one of the Soviet dictator's habitual doodles, and it showed a solitary figure in a circle surrounded by wolves. Paranoidal personalities, however, become paranoics, in practice, only when they come under severe, sustained pressure.

I watched the decolonisation process for about 40 years, and paranoidal personalities triumphed more often than balanced per-sonalities such as Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere. Why? Because the paranoidal personality survives, being quicker than others to detect enemies (not always real) and readier to attack them before they can act.

I first met Mugabe when he was a young, self-exiled teacher in Nkrumah's Ghana in the 1950s. He was an introverted, studious person who somewhat lightened up when he married Sally, a buoyant Ghanaian. Back in Rhodesia, and after a period of imprisonment, he became a minor figure in the nascent nationalist movement that, from early on, had become polarised between Zanu, led by the Shona people, and Zapu, led by the Ndebele. Zapu, under Joshua Nkomo, was for long the more powerful party. Zanu was handicapped by clan differences within the Shona until the emergence of Herbert Chitepo, who was mysteriously murdered. Only then did Mugabe emerge as a contestant for the succession. What counted against him was that he was a Zezuru, one of the smallest Shona clans. It took considerable skill and courage for him to win the Zanu leadership, but he was vulnerable from the start and, not surprisingly, developed a minority complex.

Soon after independence, he narrowly escaped being blown up. He took extreme measures to protect his personal security, but he was surrounded by real enemies. They included small Shona factions that had lost out in the liberation struggle, to say nothing of sections of the white population who, with the support of South African agents, were seriously engaged in destabilising Mugabe's government.

But the most serious threat to Mugabe came from Zapu. Although ostensibly linked to Zanu in the Patriotic Front, Nkomo - the elder statesman of Zimbabwean nationalism - was unforgiving towards Mugabe, whom he regarded as an upstart. Mugabe, distrusting the national army and believing that Zapu's armed wing still had weapons secretly buried around Bulawayo, engaged the North Koreans to train his own special Fifth Brigade, made up entirely of Shona. This force was unleashed into Matabeleland, where it suppressed the Ndebele with unspeakable atrocities. Although Zapu later agreed to merge with Zanu to form a virtual single-party state, the hatred of the Ndebele for Mugabe was undiminished.

Mugabe set about building a centralised political system with himself alone at the top. Distrusting everybody, he increasingly refused to listen to advice. To maintain control, he established a patronage system that degenerated into extensive corruption.

Mugabe is an ascetic, and liked to spend his holidays alone, studying and passing English university exams. But after the death of his first wife, he married Grace, a Zimbabwean with a taste for extravagant living; for her, he built two grand mansions, costing millions of Zimbabwean dollars at a time when most Zimbabweans lived in extreme poverty. (Today, 65 per cent are unemployed, and 75 per cent live below the breadline.) The urban unemployed increasingly turned for leadership to the strong trade union movement, led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

But the maldistribution of land has been at the dead-centre of all of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe's political discontent - a spluttering time bomb threatening the country's stability, a perennial guarantee of poverty, and an incipient threat to white-black relations. Mugabe had 21 years to tackle the land question seriously. In his first five-year term came the only planned programme to resettle 52,000 families on unoccupied land, using funds provided by Britain at independence. That scheme was only a partial success. Around 800,000 peasants continue to live in overcrowded areas covering about 16 million hectares, while 4,500 mainly white farmers occupy 11 million hectares of prime land.

But the current campaign of forcible land takeovers offers no solution. The haphazard division of the land, not always in viable sizes for farming, and the lack of provision for tools and seeds is a sure-fire recipe for failure. Besides, with the veterans (so-called, although most were actually too young to fight) taking possession of what they can grab, the landless peasants have had no share in the loot. Their lot remains what it has always been.

Mugabe alone cannot be blamed for Zimbabwe's plight. Three severe droughts and the quadruple rise in the price of oil in 1976 were among the causes of the country's economic setback. The biggest failure, however, was on the part of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Mugabe was one of the African leaders who bought into their Economic and Structural Adjustment Programme; after a full five-year period and the allocation of five billion Zimbabwean dollars, none of the targets had been met. Some of the failure was Mugabe's, especially the huge payout of compensation to the veterans in an attempt to prevent not only a serious threat to the regime, but also the risk of violence, as well as the crazy decision to commit the army to intervention in the Congo; but the real failure was not achieving structural adjustment.

Can Mugabe survive? One looks for signs of a palace coup against him, or an army takeover. Over the past six months, some senior ministers have held secret meetings with Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, in which they told him of their concern about Mugabe, "who no longer listens to anybody".

While they believe they can get a majority of the cabinet against Mugabe, they feel less sure about having their decision endorsed by Zanu's all-powerful political bureau. But their major concern is that, if they did vote Mugabe out of the cabinet, they could not count on the support of the security forces.

The possibility of a military takeover would increase if Mugabe sticks to his commitment to bring back his army from the expensive intervention in the Congo. There are credible reports that, having suffered serious casualties, shortage of regular payments and hard conditions, it would be an angry army that returned.

Mugabe knows there is a strong possibility that his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, will win if next April's presidential elections go ahead. His alternative is to cancel the elections by declaring a state of emergency. The likelihood then is that he would face a wave of violent protest and a final breakdown of what remains of law and order.

The hard question is what should be done by the external powers, both African and western. Demands for economic sanctions are unrealistic. Tsvangirai, for one, opposes them "because the country could not survive" and, in any case, Mugabe could simply use them to gain support for the declaration of a state of emergency. Zimbabwe's immediate neighbours - South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana - take the same view.

But certain steps could be taken without imposing additional burdens on the already suffering population. These would include a worldwide travel ban on Mugabe, all members of his government and senior officials; freezing their bank accounts; suspending diplomatic relations, which would include withdrawing Mugabe's right to attend the Commonwealth summit in Brisbane in October; suspending all aid other than for humanitarian projects; insisting on free presidential elections conducted under the supervision of monitors supported by the United Nations and the new African Union. It is to such action that Zimbabwe's neighbours and fellow members of the Southern African Development Community are moving. Under Mbeki's leadership, they intend a showdown with Mugabe on the grounds that his policies are destabilising the entire subcontinent.

That would be high noon for the president. But, whatever the outcome of outside intervention, the bottom line is that the Zimbabweans will be their own liberators.

Colin Legum is a former associate editor of the Observer

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The urban guerrillas Britain forgot