The root of all evil. Robert Mugabe may be a bad man but, in the list of recent human rights abusers in Africa, it is absurd to put him in the top league. And like all pin-up Mr Evils, he is the product of political processes. By Richard Dowden

Brothers Under the Skin: travels in tyranny

Christopher Hope <em>Macmillan, 280pp, £17.99</em>


Sometimes you want to say to a writer: "You shouldn't have written this. And if you woke up one morning and found you had written it, you should have burnt it or buried it in a bottom drawer for your biographer to dig out years later. Believe me, he would have praised you for your restraint and humility in not imposing it on your public, who still enjoy your novels."

I wanted to say this to Wole Soyinka when he wrote a rant about Nigeria called The Open Sore of a Continent. And someone needs to say it to Christopher Hope about his rant against Robert Mugabe - horrid, horrid, HORRID Mugabe. Does this book tip the scales in a finely balanced argument about the morality of Mugabe? Not exactly. Everyone knows he is a bad man. No one defends him. What is new here? Any insights into how it all happened or who Mugabe really is? There are lots of comparisons to Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Kim Jong-il and, bizarrely, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, the creator of apartheid, but no new information, no new insights.

In fact, a lot of it is plain wrong. A couple of minor points: gukurahundi is a wind, not rain; I have never heard the word "reconstruct" used to mean murder in Africa. But there are larger errors, too; for example, the claim that Mugabe has always had an anti-white agenda and that as soon as he was elected in 1980 he immediately and systematically began to destroy all the promises he had made about democracy and the rule of law. That is nonsense. He kept many whites in top military jobs, even after there was evidence that some of them had been complicit with South Africa in sabotaging Zimbabwe's air force. Not even after the 1985 election, when whites voted almost en masse for Ian Smith, did Mugabe turn on them, though a firmer indication that they had rejected the offer of reconciliation would be difficult to imagine.

The claim that the smart money was on Joshua Nkomo in the 1980 election is also wrong, unless you count the Daily Telegraph as smart money. The really stupid money was on Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who joined a government of national unity with Ian Smith. The ignorant money was on Nkomo, a minority Ndebele who therefore could not win. The smart money was on Mugabe. He was Shona, and led the only party that could stop the war. The Shona people voted for him in huge numbers. The war stopped and Zimbabwe was freed from white rule. But to Hope, Mugabe is evil, evil, evil, so anyone who ever took him seriously is a dupe.

The thesis of this book is that tyranny "will murder while it moralises, and it will build camps while it talks of freedom". Do not, writes Hope, "measure its magnitude by the bodies it leaves . . . you measure it better by the amnesia it creates . . . [It] relies for its force on persuading people to kill others and to sacrifice themselves for the common good. Those who rebel or demur are to be exiled, imprisoned or destroyed . . ." In ex-colonial countries it mimics its predecessors; "dictators did not die but merely passed on their tunics and their torture chambers to the next generation".

But by conceding that dictators are produced by and are part of political processes, Hope undermines his furious personal attack on Mugabe and other pin-up Mr Evils. What he really wants to do is to blame all the evil political oppression in the world on individuals - Hitler, Stalin, Mugabe - as if, had they been strangled at birth, none of it would ever have happened.

Like Hope, I made the trip into Zimbabwe last year and interviewed several victims of his regime. I had met Mugabe before he came to power and several times since. I have also interviewed a few "tyrants", including Saddam Hussein and Margaret Thatcher, and quite a number of less well-known but equally nasty African rulers. My conclusion is that these African leaders like power and they do whatever they can to hold on to it. Most of them would probably murder and torture if they thought they could get away with it.

In places like the Middle East and Africa where leaders can get away with it, they do kill and torture. But in terms of human rights abuse in Africa in the past decade or two, Mugabe is not in the top league. In Kenya, for example, more people were killed by government thugs in the lead-up to the last general election than in the recent upheavals in Zimbabwe. The former president, Daniel arap Moi, also destroyed his country's economy, though he took longer to do it than Mugabe. And what of Rwanda?

In Cote d'Ivoire a few years ago, the president, Henri Konan Bedie, tried to remove the citizenship of a northern political rival and thereby make aliens of half the population. Hundreds have died there as a result and the country has been wrecked. And the appalling wars of Congo, Sudan and Burundi grind on, killing thousands. How much do we read about these conflicts? Not a fraction of the coverage Zimbabwe receives. Why? Because they do not involve white people. That, and only that, accounts for the extensive coverage of Zimbabwe in the British press. The recent upsurge of interest in the Matabeleland massacres of the early 1980s only came on the back of coverage of Mugabe attacking whites. It attracted little interest at the time and I doubt the story would otherwise have been revived; it is just another stick to beat Mugabe with. So why did Hope not write a rant against the tyrannies of Mengistu Haile Mariam (a real butcher), or Konan Bedie, or Laurent Kabila, or Omar Hassan el-Bashir? They did not kill whites. And why does he compare Mugabe to the architect of apartheid? Because there is no greater insult a white liberal South African can heap on the head of his enemy.

Hope's description of the whites who colonised Zimbabwe explains a great deal of what has happened since, but he seems to forget that history when he talks of Mugabe. He notes that the average colonist believed that, "by wrecking your land, and ruining your people, I will become richer and you will become a better and more civilised human being. The destruction of your country will considerably improve your moral fibre. What is good for my shareholders, in short, is good for your soul." Yet a mere 70 years later, Hope visits Rhodesia "and found it really rather pleasant". Yes, the white grandsons of the murderers and rapists were quite comfortably off but the black grandchildren of the victims still chewed on the memories. No wonder Mugabe is quite popular in some parts of Africa.

Although Hope believes that Mugabe was born evil, the really interesting question is why he changed and why he waited so long. In the interviews I conducted with him in the 1980s, he hardly ever mentioned land. Nor did he proceed with his land grab in the 1990s, after the constitutional "sunset clauses" protecting whites lapsed. Then he could have done it legally, peacefully, and without wrecking the Zimbabwean economy.

The change came in his seventies, after his first wife Sally died. He wanted another draught of the old-time rhetoric that had driven him to power. He wanted to be recharged with another war. In 2000, he lost a referendum on the constitution. Worse, he lost it in the rural areas where the bank of Zanu-PF votes lay. He realised that the "no" voters had been organised by an opposition movement funded by white business and white farmers. At the same time he was under attack within the party. That was not new. Shona politics is a tricky business and contrary to popular belief Mugabe's position at the top of Zanu-PF was not always rock-solid. But this time he was under attack from the left, from Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi, who began by demanding pensions for "war veterans" and then demanded land. If Mugabe had lost control of the lumpen thugs, he could have lost power. He had to capture Hunzvi's territory and attack the white-funded opposition. It rolled into one neat but lethal campaign that destroyed Zimbabwe. That is the tragedy of Mugabe. In order to keep ruling, he destroyed what he ruled. Sounds a good theme for a great novelist, Mr Hope.

Richard Dowden is a former Africa editor of the Economist

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Coming soon: the new poor