Posts Tagged ‘Zimbabwe’

Robert Mugabe: compassionate, violent, retired

November 22, 2017

I never met ex-president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. But there was one occasion, an extremely tragic one, when we came within touching distance of each other.

He had come to visit the school where I was working as an English teacher. To be sure, the entourage was impressive: helicopter, convoy, security everywhere. But he was humble and clearly touched, as he went from parent to parent, holding their hands, looking into their eyes, sharing their grief. The parents, poor farmers from villages close to the school, had lost many of their children just a few months earlier in Zimbabwe’s worst bus accident, on August 3, 1991. Some families had buried two, even three of their loved ones, young talent they had pinned their hopes on; young talent we had been teaching.

I was impressed with his humanity. After all, he must have known what they felt. Robert Mugabe lost his son while in a Rhodesian prison in the 1960s. The white minority regime at the time did not give him permission to attend the funeral. I’ll let that speak for itself.

Compassion. It is a side of Zimbabwe’s former president that is not frequently shed light on. It is a side he showed at Regina Coeli Secondary School and it was a side known to the late Heidi Holland, who wrote Dinner With Mugabe, based on her encounters and interviews with him, his family and associates. She recalled how he had stopped at her house. ‘He was supposed to catch a train and after dinner I drove him to the station, leaving my baby at home alone because there wasn’t time to bundle him into the car. I was driving very fast, being rather anxious. The next day he rang me from a public callbox, asking me whether my baby was alright.’

(Photo credit: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images). Montage, as I understand it, made by Zambia Observer

Manicaland, Zimbabwe’s breathtakingly beautiful eastern mountain province, looms large in the country’s liberation struggle from white minority rule. Mugabe transited Manicaland as he left Rhodesia for newly-independent Mozambique, with the help of Chief Rekayi Tangwena, a legendary local leader in a place not far from Regina Coeli. Once in Mozambique, he joined the group leading the struggle for Zimbabwe, which ended in 1980. Mutare, the provincial capital, is where he caught his train. And as I was teaching there, many were able to point towards the mountains and caves where they hid during the long, dangerous and bloody liberation struggle – the same places where some of the surviving children found refuge after the bus accident.

‘It was not him who joined the struggle,’ Holland told me looking back on Mugabe’s political career, ‘the struggle found him. If left to his own devices, he would have become a headmaster, very prim and proper. He cared about education.’ Indeed: stories about his early years in State House tell us that after work in office he would gather the house staff and run classes with them.

The struggle found him because in spite of his humble beginnings he was well-educated and well-travelled, having worked in Ghana where he met his first wife Sally Hayfron. She supported him all the way through: from his return to Rhodesia, his imprisonment of more than ten years, the armed struggle and then finally to their triumphant arrival at State House, when his party had beaten all the odds and won a resounding victory.

Mutare. My former shopping centre. Photo from Wikipedia.

‘Why do you put the picture of this guy on the wall? It’s never there.’

‘Don’t worry about it. Once the election is over I’ll remove it again. I just don’t want my house smashed up because his picture is not on our wall.’

Family scene in Mutare, early 1980s. The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front deployed vigilante groups throughout the land whenever there was an election and punished anyone who did not demonstrate enough enthusiasm in support of the party and its leader. A few hundred kilometres to the southwest of Mutare, in Matabeleland, the army’s notorious North Korea-trained Five Brigade was on a coordinated killing spree that left up to 20,000 people dead. Their crime: being close to what was considered an armed uprising against the government. It was a confrontation that was fuelled by the deep personal rivalry between Mugabe and the late Joshua Nkomo, who had led another liberation movement with a different ideological orientation. There were South African machinations behind it, as the apartheid state was destabilising all of its neighbours, through proxies, terrorist attacks and in open warfare until their 1988 defeat at Cuito Canavale in Angola put an end to its army operations abroad.

There was certainly trouble in Matabeleland but the government’s response was of a cruelty that scarred the province forever and strained relations with Harare. The name given to the mass murders was “Gukurahundi”, which translates as “the first rains that wash away the dust and the dirt”. It would not be the last time that Mugabe’s government would refer to people as garbage to be removed. “Operation Cleanup” was supposed to rid Harare’s streets of prostitutes. “Murambatsvina” was an electoral operation that physically removed hundreds of thousands of people from their (often makeshift) dwellings, preventing them from voting in their constituencies and thus handing the party and its leader another victory. In rural Zimbabwe, self-appointed war veterans terrorised the people into what was termed “voting correctly”. During another election-related wave of violence (this time in 2008, a particularly brutal episode), schools, once the pride and joy of the country, were turned into torture centres. And yes, sometimes I wonder what happened to the classrooms where I worked all those years ago.

Months after the president had left Regina Coeli, my school, news emerged that a quarter of a million euros, spontaneously collected by the ordinary women and men of Zimbabwe to help the grieving parents overcome their loss, had gone missing. The ruling party had stolen it. The rot had set in early and nothing was done to stop it. In fact, when war veterans rampaged through the party’s headquarters in 1997, smashing the furniture and eating the food in its well-stocked canteen, the party mouthpiece The Herald screamed “Hooligans” from its front page. The war veterans had enough of starving to death in the rural areas while fat cats high up in the party hierarchy grew even fatter on the backs of other people’s labour. That, in fact, was the origin of the movement. It was hi-jacked by political opportunists like the late Chenjerai ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi, who forced Mugabe into a terrible deal. Here’s Heidi Holland once more.

‘Dennis Norman, a former minister with whom Mugabe got on very well, was close to the negotiations. He describes how Mugabe attended with two other ministers and then was told by the war vets that he must attend by himself. And rather uncharacteristically, he (Mugabe) agreed to this.’ Alone, the war vets arm-twisted the president into a deal he probably knew the country could not afford. After all, he had just sent thousands of troops into the DR Congo to prop up his friend Joseph Kabila and now he was to hand over truckloads of Zimbabwe dollars to tens of thousands of former freedom fighters he and his cronies had neglected. All the deal did was to inflict more damage on Zimbabwe’s already faltering economy. The ill-conceived and even worse executed “land reform” policy of the early 2000s provided more blows. There are optimists who think that the basics are still there and the economy can be turned around but the task will be immense.

And so, in 2017, twenty years after war veterans exposed his political vulnerability, Robert Mugabe finally gets what he has wanted for two decades: an escape from party politics. It was the army that kept him in power, it was Zimbabwe’s highly coordinated military – intelligence – police – prisons complex, inherited from the illegal Rhodesian white minority regime, that ensured he won election after election. And now that he has rubbed them the wrong way, intentionally perhaps, they have dropped him in favour of Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s equally violent enforcer and eternal Number Two. The head is gone, the system that he built, because and in spite of himself, remains in all its rotten glory. Mugabe may have smiled his wry smile, as he heard the traitorous and treacherous hypocrites in the Politbureau and Parliament rapturously applaud his departure.

The man who spent the last twenty years of his reign being a consummate political survivor, has thrown his last roll of the dice. He will retire, not to Kutama, the village where he spent part of his traumatic youth – he lost his elder brother there after an accident with agricultural poison – but in all likelihood to a carefully guarded mansion, maybe in the same leafy Gun Hill area in Harare where he kept his old friend, Mengistu Haile Mariam, a more prolific murderer than he ever was, for 26 years. An intensely private man with a complex and turbulent past, a messy love life and a deeply ambivalent attitude towards power and politics, will now have the time to ponder what he has done to his country, the excellent, the good, the bad, the terrible and for some, undoubtedly, the unforgiveable. ‘A shame that he had to leave through the backdoor,’ Guinean president Alpha Condé commented shortly after Mugabe’s last-minute resignation. True perhaps, but it was Mugabe who made it so, just as he did throughout his long years at the helm. He should have stuck to education.


March 25, 2014

What do Charles Taylor, Robert Mugabe, Laurent Gbagbo and Thabo Mbeki have in common? Apart from the fact that all have been presidents (one still is and will be until he dies) and all have to a greater or lesser extent autocratic tendencies and three out of four have proved to be prone to violence. Well? Here it is: they all hate The West and the Evil People who populate it although some (Mbeki) are better at hiding it than others (his northern neighbour). And because they all hate that monstrous entity that spreads disease, pestilence, death, destruction and bad entertainment around the world wherever it puts its jackboot, they all have earned the adoring admiration of the magazine I used to write for and from time to time write about: New African, NA for short.

Once upon a time the magazine sailed a journalistic course with regards to Côte d’Ivoire but then I wrote a letter to the editor (never published) reminding him that since Laurent Gbagbo employed exactly the same anti Western rhetoric as its other heroes (if not similar repressive methods like Mugabe) they should support him to the hilt. I remain, until this very day, deeply disappointed that I have never been given credit for the swift change in editorial line that NA performed in order to chime with the magazine’s central narrative: The West is plotting in more than a thousand ways to keep the Black Man Down.

It did obediently reproduce a piece about the Ivorian crisis penned by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, the contents of which came straight from the Public Relations Department of the Front Populaire Ivoirien, Gbagbo’s very own ZANU-PF. To this day, the FPI remains firmly convinced that its leader won the elections and that France’s former ADHD president Sarkozy put Ouattara on the throne with United Nations complicity. And that’s another thing that all these have in common with NA’s central narrative, which is a seductive mix of perpetual victimhood based on kernels of truth without any self-reflection. It produces a deeply disempowering political agenda.

The reason I am writing all this is that I have discovered that NA has added a new hero to its expanding Heroes’ Pantheon. His name? His Excellency, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Jahya Abdel Aziz Jemus Junkug Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia! He ticks all the right boxes. Came to power in a coup in 1994 and has since developed the mindset that running his country, into the ground as it happens, is his inalienable birthright. He has turned the country into his private property and a police state. Also a haven for money laundering and arms smuggling. And sex tourism for middle-aged women from the UK, Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere. Business Is Booming.

Jammeh’s greatest claim to fame dates back to April 2000, when he ordered the army to open fire on unarmed schoolchildren on a demonstration, while exclaiming his most memorable quote: shoot the bastards. He had a few more executed in 2012 as his jails were facing a capacity problem. Now that’s what I call efficiency. He also supports at least one of the factions that is causing frequent havoc across the border in Senegal’s Casamance Province, effectively holding the government in Dakar hostage: if you allow too much Gambian dissidence on your territory, all hell will break loose in your beloved Casamance. So far, it has worked like a charm.


But why has His Excellency etc etc etc earned himself the adoring admiration of New African magazine? Because he hates The West and the Evil People in it. He has become worried about the fact that The West takes a disproportionately large part of Africa’s wealth. This Must Change. He advocates a program of redistribution that he may, one day, want to apply in his own country. Apparently, The Gambia is sitting on oil and His Excellency etc etc has discovered…the Gambian People. To whom the oil belongs. Interesting thought. He has made other striking revelations in the past, such as not needing doctors to cure AIDS; he can do that himself. (I seem to remember Thabo Mbeki had a rather tenuous relationship with the scientific explanation of the disorder…) His Excellency etc etc also likes to employ unregistered armies, like Charles Taylor, to further his objectives. As far as anyone can see he only has one, the same as Mugabe: staying in power until he dies. He has more things in common with the Dear Leader in Harare: he recently left The Commonwealth because it is colonialist and the two are also united in their intense homophobia. ‘Worse than pigs and dogs,’ in Mugabeland; ‘vermin’, in Jammehland.  Both were upstaged recently by Uganda’s gay-hating president Yoweri Museveni, whom NA dislikes intensely because he is deemed a “stooge of the West” but who knows, things may change…

So NA went to The Gambia and did a MAC (Mutual Adoration Chat), went on to publish a few quotes on oil and a letter castigating someone who had the gall to criticise this hero of the fight against colonialism, slavery, exploitation, greed and racism, which as you know are the only relevant hallmarks of The West and its Evil People. I, for one, am pleased to see His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Jahya Abdel Aziz Jemus Junkug Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia, curer of AIDS, swift dispatcher of school children, brave protagonist of proxy conflict, expert emptier of prisons and champion of the downtrodden included in NA’s Heroes’ Pantheon. Maybe he could accompany the editor on one of his frequent trips to a certain Heroes’ Acre in the Zimbabwean capital where some heroes are notable for their absence. Not that this should detain this new beautiful pair as they gushingly report from Paradise On Earth.

Four Easy Pieces

December 22, 2012

Mutare is a charming town in the east of Zimbabwe, a six hours’ bus ride from my former home in a remote rural area. It was April 1992 and I was strolling along the High Street for the very last time, a long goodbye to the music venues, some (rather dodgy) hotels, the shops, department stores, restaurants and market stalls. And of course: numerous friends.

My contract with this nation’s Ministry of Education had come to an end. I had worked as an English teacher in two very different schools. One was a well-established Roman Catholic mission school, the other so fresh that on my first visit it still smelled of bricks and mortar, like Zimbabwe’s Independence itself. These were rollercoaster years. Triumph and optimism played ball with disappointment; there was comedy and tragedy in spades and there were, for a lot of us, the traces, never fully erased, left behind by a single road tragedy in August 1991.

Zimbabwe was a “donor darling”, in reception of huge amounts of aid, no questions asked, certainly not about the murderous military campaign president Mugabe’s army had just finished in the South and the West. With the aid came hordes of development workers and volunteers. People like me: adventurous, reasonably professional, not armed with sufficient knowledge of the country to understand what was really going on there…but crucially, with impeccable left-wing political credentials. In short, not particularly suited to deal with a country freshly out of its war for independence and inhabited by people with street cred well beyond their age.

Still, now the contract is over and I am making my last Mutare round. Inevitably, I meet other volunteers. Small talk.

‘So you’re leaving?’ followed by ‘And what’s next?’

Well, I quite like this work to put it mildly. So my reply runs like this: ‘Well, I’m going back home but I hope to be back soon, in some other posting, I’m sure something will come up. So yes, I’m looking forward to more development work.’

‘You can’t,’ one of my alleged colleagues states, matter-of-fact.

Slightly taken aback and definitely not taking the hint, I venture: ‘I can’t…why not?’

‘Because you’re white – and you’re male.’

We say our goodbyes, me gobsmacked, she in excellent spirits, on her way to her next assignment.

Fast forward 20 years and I am working in Dakar as an independent correspondent. My reflections on what had been bothering me about the movement that calls itself “progressive” had brought me back to that Zimbabwean street and I realise that this was the very first time I had come across a phenomenon that has strangled to near-death that part of the political spectrum that thinks itself “of the Left”. Part two, tomorrow.

Orwell’s Zimbabwe

October 7, 2012

The Africa Desk at Radio Netherlands recently had a report on the latest antics of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, focusing on his highly complicated love life. More about that here:  

It brought me back to school.

Two decades ago, I was teaching English language and literature in a secondary school in the Nyanga area, Northeast Zimbabwe. Proof, it is useful to recall, of president Robert Mugabe’s dedication to education. Among early Zimbabwe’s most enduring legacies will be millions of well-educated Zimbabweans, including my own former students. President Mugabe was, after all, a teacher himself. More on that here (go to the bottom of the page and listen to Part Two of my interview with the late Heidi Holland – the other parts are good as well…):

Two decades ago, I was living in my little corner of Northeast Zimbabwe and to my eternal shame not very well aware of the bloody backdrop to the new unity government that had just been been announced. The main order of the day, I felt, was decolonizing the literature curriculum. I kicked out boring 19th century rural English lit and introduced Chinua Achebe, Wilson Katiyo, Shimmer Chinodya and others. For students wanting to take a deeper literary plunge I could point to Zimbabwe’s greatest national treasure: Dambudzo Marechera. Not yet Yvonne Vera, that other great treasure; her first book came out one year after I had left.

Personal contacts in and outside the school gradually began to reveal a country where political intolerance was the order of the day. Hidden, mostly, between elections; palpable, in campaign time. When the ruling party came up for re-elections, talk in bars moved resolutely away from politics: even then it was unwise to proclaim one’s own dissidence in public. The armed dissident movement in the South and the West of the country had just been wiped off the face of the earth by North Korea-trained soldiers of the Five Brigade. At least according to government propaganda. In reality, there had been an almost completely concealed campaign of mass slaughter going on, which had killed 20,000 people. A fact that was only hit home when in 1999 the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission published its report called “Breaking the silence”.

I kept Orwell in class. Animal Farm: a dangerous choice.

After much discussion, I asked the students if they would want to write essays comparing the story in Orwell’s fable to events in their own country. Not without risk but they jumped at the opportunity – and the insights they offered were razor sharp. How about this? They mentioned…

The revolution that kicked out the former owners.

The short-lived but genuine euphoria: we’re free!

Ubiquitous use of the word “comrade”.

Dissent and infighting in the top ranks; dissidents being banished or coopted.

Sly propaganda to keep the populace in line. Frequent trick: asking, rhetorically, menacingly: do you want the former owner back?

Violent repression of those who disagree with the new rulers.

Writing certain undesirable elements out of history.

It was all there, in the writings of the students. And that was long before the “international community” suddenly discovered that there was a problem in the state of Zimbabwe.

Yes, this country’s history has followed an uncannily large number of the twists and turns from Orwell’s tale, including personality cults and replacing a universal anthem by a “proper” national anthem. It also added a few twists of its own, including the 1997 revolt of the revolution’s rank and file. Their anger was paid off and the “war vets” were co-opted into Zimbabwe’s infrastructure of political violence.

Another extra-Orwellian twist was the emergence of a group that could, perhaps, maybe, help liberation further along by kicking out the liberators. Predictably, Zimbabwe’s leaders wasted no time in painting Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change as stooges of the former owner. Do you want him back? President Mugabe’s ruling party election slogan was nothing more than a simple statement of fact: Zimbabwe will never be a colony again.

Indeed. No-one, except for a few deranged white supremacists, has been suggesting anything else. But the second wave of euphoria has been even shorter-lived than the previous one. Today, with Tsvangirai’s love life at least as untidy as that of the president, you could forgive my former students for turning to the last page of Animal Farm and concluding that, inevitably, would-be liberators bear an eerie resemblance to liberators-turned-leaders…

A review of The Fear, by Peter Godwin – conclusion

January 18, 2012

Godwin’s descriptions make your heart wrench. What makes The Fear hit home so closely is of course that this time, the violence Mugabe and his generals unleash may have happened to people I have known personally. Or – there is no room for illusions here – may have been perpetrated by people I have known personally. There are literally thousands of these criminals crawling the length and breadth of Zimbabwe. From the local ZANU-PF village leaders who burnt down one man’s house and sent his wife and child scampering for safety, to the ZANU-PF Members of Parliament who were seen participating in atrocities against the people they are supposed to represent, to the vigilantes who burnt the house of the newly-elected mayor of Harare, murdered his wife and traumatised their small son…all the way up to ministers and generals like Perence Shiri and Constantine Chiwengwa who co-organised this orgy of violence, as they did the last one.

Heroes' Acre, Harare. Pic: MastaBaba on Flickr

Like the president, they have visions of themselves lying in one of those special burial places reserved at the bombastic North Korea-constructed national shrine, called Heroes’ Acre. But if there is a God, there will be a special place in Hell for all of those who destroyed thousands of lives and made the lives of countless more a living hell – on earth.

I read this book in Dakar, home to another octogenarian who thinks he is larger than God and in possession of the divine right to govern until eternity. He also got the North Koreans to construct a monstrosity known as the Monument for the African Renaissance  and nobody is any the wiser about the deals he has made with the late Kim Jung Il and his friends.

To be sure, Senegal is as different from Zimbabwe as Finland is from Portugal and president Abdoulaye Wade lacks the degrees in violence that Mugabe so proudly boasts of. Yet, as a presidential election edges nearer in which Wade stands for a highly contested third term, the nation’s Criminal Investigations Division has “interviewed” editors, journalists, website owners, political activists, human rights advocates. One of whom has gone on record saying that said Division ‘is becoming more and more like a political police’. And a campaign manager told me that he was keenly aware of the lengths to which the ruling party was prepared to go, in order to ensure victory. No, certainly not The Fear but these are sinister signs just the same. Lord, deliver us from megalomaniacal gerontocrats!

A review of The Fear, by Peter Godwin – part two

January 17, 2012

‘There is a green hill far away,

I’m going back there one fine day…’

Glastonbury Song, The Waterboys, 1993

The Eastern Highland village of Chimanimani used to be my sanctuary. Take a bus down from Mutare, the prettiest town in the world, and after hours of twists and turns through a magic forest landscape you’d arrive on a large open space, mostly quiet. There was an eland sanctuary close by and a large hill overlooking the town. It is not the one The Waterboys sing about but it always enters my mind’s eye when I hear the song.

Not exactly green but in my memory it was. Pic from

Chimanimani boasts an old colonial hotel and my most vivid recollection is this: a group of Zimbabwean teachers sitting around the fireplace in the evening, outdoing each other in citing lengthy Shakespeare soliloquies, from memory. Teachers used to be able to afford hotels like these. I know, because I was one. I went to Chimanimani for my Zimbabwean holidays. Peter Godwin spent some of his childhood not far from here.

Yes, I was one of those volunteers that he describes “pouring in from around to world” to help Zimbabwe attain the highest literacy rate on the African continent. In fact, at 92%, it was the envy of the world. I worked in two different schools. Work, optimism, dedication, triumph, tragedy and – more work. All in plentiful supply.

I was vaguely aware of the terror that Mugabe had let loose on the southwestern part of this new nation, a terror Godwin has described in one of his other books, Mukiwa. When I entered the country in 1988, the Unity Accord had just been signed, between Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – People’s Front, or ZANU-PF. What I understood only later was that this created a de facto one party state. There was no unity. This was Mugabe’s victory over his greatest political rival – a victory that came at the price of 20,000 deaths and many more lives scattered.

Fast forward to December 2011. Robert Mugabe’s party endorsed him to run for yet another term as president. He will be 88 this year and can live until he is one hundred. If the elections take place in 2012, then reading The Fear will give you an idea how he intends to win yet another term in office. The Fear deals with the elections of 2008.

This was the second time his God-given right to rule was seriously challenged. Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), roundly defeated him in what, unfortunately, was just the first round of the presidential elections.

Very few in the world can match Robert Mugabe’s skills of political survival. He is on a par with the late Gnassingbe Eyadema (immortalised in Ahmadou Kourouma’s seminal novel En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages). He has the crass power instincts of the Birmese generals although they seem to be loosening up these days. But most of all, he understands power in the way his mentors understand it, the ruling parties of China and North Korea (the one that recently lost its “Dear Leader”). All have used a mix of political manoeuvring, election fraud, intimidation, lies, vicious propaganda and violence on an industrial scale in order to stay in power. Peter Godwin describes how these ingredients were applied to keep one octogenarian autocrat in power in Zimbabwe.

The first round results were doctored, to make a second round inevitable. This bought the president and his henchmen enough to time to organise a huge wave of systematic political violence. The scenarios were ready; the organisers were ready. In fact, the organisers were the exact same people that still have to account for the massacre of the amaNdebele in the 1980s. In exactly the same vein, they set about, literally crushing the political opposition in 2008. Godwin documents their victims’ stories.


The patterns emerge: people who have “voted wrongly” in the first round have their homes firebombed; their bones are broken, the soles of their feet and their buttocks are whipped until they are raw and become septic; their skulls receive heavy blows. The means are crude and effective: iron bars, wooden clubs, whips, ropes, rocks, fists. And no-one is safe: men get targeted but women and children too. Even the elderly are assaulted: Mugabe’s thugs have no problems breaking towering cultural taboos. And the schools? The places where young and eager children once learned to read and write and discuss literature and debate and do sports? They became torture bases. Difficult concept for this ex-teacher to get his head around.

(Third and final part to follow shortly)

A review of The Fear, by Peter Godwin – part one

January 17, 2012

This book is about a country where I lived for almost four years. And even though I am now working from an entirely different corner of the continent almost 20 years later, it is easy to revive the image of my former home. Neat houses sat behind hedges that somehow managed to grow from the sandy soil, there was a shop run by my namesake, a man as generous as he was grumpy. ‘Yes, come and bring your bloody money tomorrow…’. The mill for grinding mealies would growl into action a couple of times per day and then fall silent again. And, of course, there was the inevitable drinking den known as “the bottle store”. Perched on top of a hill close to the river, it was run by a woman who managed to be friendly and imperious at the same time. She lived with her son in a modest compound. When she felt like it, the bottle store was open. When she decided she couldn’t be bothered today, it was closed. No amount of pleading or cajoling or begging could sway her. You just had to find another drinking spot.

There was no other drinking spot.

A dirt road ran right through the middle of this quiet place. Twice every day, this deep, mostly sun-drenched rural silence would be shattered by the arrival of The Bus From Town. Its habitual stop was under a tree almost in front of the bottle store. There it is, engines revving. Passengers pour out of the ageing vehicle and they start pointing at the roof. That one? No! That one, yes, over there! Young guys have climbed on top of the bus and are tearing the sacks and cardboard boxes and huge multicoloured plastic bags loose from the roof rack that runs the entire length of the bus. All done, the driver impatiently revs the engine and then begins the slope down to the river, spanned by one of those small concrete bridges just wide enough for a bus or a truck to pass. He’s gone. Silence reigns again.

Nyautare, Zimbabwe. Incredibly, I found this digital picture of my old house at St. Monica's Secondary School. The picture came from this website:

The vehicles almost always made it across those brigdes. But sometimes, it went horribly wrong. Once, while negotiating the many twists and turns of the road in this mountain-strewn part of the country in a rented car, I came across something unusual. A crowd, looking at a troop transport vehicle known as a  “Hippo”. It was lying on its side, had missed the bridge. Having taken lifts in these vehicles I knew that there had almost certainly been drinking and dope smoking going on inside. It appeared that there had only been two soldiers on board. Were they dead? No, but badly injured certainly. They were on their way to the nearest hospital, 50 kilometres down the road.

Having read The Fear, Peter Godwin’s harrowing book on president Robert Mugabe’s ultra violent 2008 re-election campaign, I was left wondering if the soldiers, torturers, murderers, arsonists, thugs and rapists were taking mind-altering substances when doing the head of state’s political bidding. It certainly was the case in Charles Taylor’s Liberia. The boys who did the killing and raping during the West African wars told me they remember nothing and that this was due to a cocktail of alcohol, amphetamines and hashish they were fed before being sent on their murderous ways. What did Mugabe’s goons have to ingest, for them to commit their crimes?

There are a few characters in Godwin’s book who can reliably be described as bona fide psychopaths, the ones that can always be relied upon to surface in the service of a totalitarian dictatorship. Godwin describes the actions of one Joseph Mwale, who smashes the car windows of two opposition activists, douses the insides with petrol and watches a young man and a young woman get out and stagger to their flaming deaths. Mwale resurfaces a few more times, overseeing torture. In his final appearance, Godwin spots him on television, licking his “homicidal fingers” at one of Mugabe’s lavish birthday dinner parties…

part two will follow shortly.

Côte d’Ivoire: Gbagbo wins (1)

March 25, 2011

Time to tackle this one.

We have seen this before.

A republic holds presidential elections. Someone wins – someone else loses. If the opposition candidate loses, he’ll shout “fraud” and “rigged” but will, most likely, cut his losses, move on and try again. That’s the Cellou Dalein Diallo approach. He lost last year’s contest in Guinea, declared he was unhappy with the outcome but would accept it. He is busy readying his party for the upcoming legislative elections because he intends to fight the winner, Alpha Condé, from Parliament. (Next week, I will (finally!) be travelling through his home area and catch the prevailing mood.)

If the incumbent loses, there are various scenarios. Some, as in Ghana, Mali and Zambia accept their loss and move on. But there are others who want to perform, what one may term, “a Mugabe” on their countries. There are variations to this plan of action but in essence it means: do absolutely everything to stay in power. After all, you will be safe in the knowledge that at the end of the day, no-one will stop you.

Laurent Gbagbo and his clan are currently in the business of “doing a Mugabe” on their country, Côte d’Ivoire. The parallels are striking. Like its counterpart in Zimbabwe, the Gbagbo clan

…Sits atop a large and well-organised political machine (Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Popular Front) – Front Populaire Ivoirien, even the names are the same), whose express purpose it is…not to contest elections but to win them

…Has considerable popular support but this may not be enough to win elections every single time. After all, political sands do shift from time to time. So the clan…

…Participates in elections but has absolutely no intention of accepting the results if they go against it

…Has a war chest of considerable size, in case things do not go the way of the clan. This war chest permits them to pay those who are keeping them in power (see below). The war chest is filled through looting – principally their own country – and donations from friendly rulers with track records they can relate to and preferably a lot of oil money (Angola, Venezuela, Libya)

…Resorts to asset stripping and seizing profitable economic activity if the war chest shows sings of distress (banks and cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire; diamonds and the 51% indigenous (read: clan) business ownership rule in Zimbabwe)

…Has three essential pillars in place that allows the clan to stay put if it has run out of sufficient political support: propaganda, intimidation and violent repression.

1. State-owned media become relentless propaganda machines. In Zimbabwe, the Herald newspaper and theZBC (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation) can be relied upon to obediently and dutifully copy the output emanating from the president’s office and/or the minister of information; in Côte d’Ivoire that role is played by the television signals and the website of RTI, Radiodiffusion et Télévision Ivoirienne). Invariably, some of the propaganda has xenophobic overtones: in Zimbabwe, the official fingers jab constantly at “The British” and occasionally Indians – in other words: everyone who does not look sufficiently African. In Côte d’Ivoire, the principal targets are the neighbours, mostly Burkinabé (portrayed as “mercenaries” or “rebels”) and sometimes the French. Pogroms are common.

Which brings us to number 2.

Green Bombers

2. Vigilante groups are turned loose on the streets. They have an unspoken but well-understood mandate to harass, brutalise and kill those who are perceived to be on the side of “the enemy” (Zimbabwe had its war veterans and its Green Bombers, young thugs trained (frequently against their will, by the way) to brutalise the people in special camps; Côte d’Ivoire relies on its Jeune Patriotes, led by Street general Charles Blé Goudé, who has recently enjoined the youths to join the army. This, incidentally, ties in very well with a mini-series I ran here, called “Relentless Trends”. It’s simply the latest version of how a society, any society, makes use of a surplus of young men that are idle and without a future: send them to war. And so, on to 3.

Jeune Patriote

3. The army (and if need be praetorian guards and other militias) are used to suppress any popular challenge to clan rule. These troops are there to kill. Unarmed civilians, real soldiers, it makes very little difference.


Anyone inside and outside the country who calls the clan on its behaviour will be called a stooge of the West, a spy, or member of a conspiracy at the behest of the former colonial power. This gives the vigilantes and repression forces the mandate to pursue and preferably kill the owners of the offending opinions. Some publicists who fancy themselves “intellectuals”, or worse, “journalists” are perfectly happy to justify extrajudicial killings and mass violence against unarmed civilians, as long as their right-on anti-imperialist credentials remain intact. Not infrequently they vent their considered opinions from the comfort and safety of homes located in these vile imperialist hellholes.

Alright, so what does all this have to do with the title of this piece? Simple – the method works. Would the other side be any better? Doubtful. More anon.