World·Analysis

Same old violent story starring same old angry leader in Zimbabwe: Don Murray

We've seen this movie before. It's set in a battered, fractured country and stars an old, angry leader and a people on their knees but driven to try to revolt. This is Zimbabwe in 2016. But it was also Zimbabwe in 2009, in 2002, in 2000 and at various times in the 1990s, Don Murray writes.

Robert Mugabe continues to suppress dissent with violence amid economic disaster

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is once again cracking down violently on those who oppose him. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

We've seen this movie before.

It's set in a battered, fractured country and stars an old, angry leader and a people on their knees who are driven to try to revolt.

This is Zimbabwe in 2016. But it was also Zimbabwe in 2009, in 2002, in 2000 and at various times in the 1990s.

The old, angry leader is Robert Mugabe, now not just old but immensely old. He is 92 and has run his country with an authoritarian hand since it gained independence in 1980. Immensely old and physically weakened, yet he says he will run again for president in 2018.

Economy has ground to a halt

Economically, Zimbabwe is once again on its knees, indeed almost prostrate.
Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters call for President Robert Mugabe to step down. (Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images)

Seven years ago, faced with annual inflation running at literally 80 billion per cent and with the central bank printing trillion-dollar notes, Mugabe's government took the amazing step of simply abolishing the national currency.

Zimbabweans now use American dollars, South African rands, and since last year, Chinese yuan as official currencies. Inflation has disappeared, but in recent months so have the U.S. dollars and the other currencies. The economy has ground to a halt.

Most of the adult population is listed as unemployed, government workers are paid weeks in arrears, there's a severe drought and the government has banned basic imports.

It hasn't the money to pay for them.

#ThisFlag 

The latest spark of revolt was touched off by a Christian pastor, Evan Mawarire. With no money to pay his children's school fees, he vented his frustration in a self-shot video in April showing him draped in a Zimbabwean flag.

"When I look at the flag," he said, "it's not a reminder of my pride and inspiration. It feels as if I want to belong to another country."

He then posted his video with the hashtag #ThisFlag. It got thousands of hits and sparked demonstrations and one-day strikes.

The Mugabe regime initially reacted with mockery. A government minister dismissed the video and the hashtag as "a pastor's fart."

Then came the warnings and threats. Mugabe said Mawarire was "a fake" and "foreign sponsored." The protests, he said, "won't pay."

Then, in July, Mawarire was arrested and charged with subversion and trying to overthrow the government. Under immense public pressure, a court threw out the charge. Mawarire slipped out of the country. 

But the protests continued. Police armed with truncheons, tear gas and water cannons broke up a demonstration in Harare on Tuesday. Marchers in the capital carrying flowers and holding signs that read "Mugabe Must Go" were beaten bloody.

This was mild by Mugabe's standards.

Thousands killed

In the 1980s, having come to power after a long guerrilla war against the white regime of Ian Smith in Rhodesia, Mugabe set about dismantling his own national unity government.

He did it using the 5th Army Brigade, trained by North Korean operatives. Mugabe's troops killed up to 20,000 tribal followers of his vice-president, Joshua Nkomo, in Matabeleland. Many of the dead were buried in mass graves.
Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo at Lancaster House, London, in 1979. Mugabe would later turn on his ally and have thousands of his supporters killed. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Then he dumped Nkomo. When I interviewed him in 1987, Nkomo was a lost man, still hardly believing his one-time guerrilla ally had presided over mass murder.

Throughout the killing, Zimbabwe's 4,500 rich, white commercial farmers sat quietly, each employing a small regiment of black farm workers. Theirs was a universe of large houses, magnificent vistas, manicured lawns, and beef at Sunday lunch. It was a corner of the colonial past that hadn't died. 

They told me they couldn't believe their luck. Their old enemy Mugabe had left them alone. They weren't going to rock the boat over tribal quarrels.

Their luck ran out a dozen years later.

Agricultural death spiral

At the end of the 1990s, Mugabe unleashed the so-called veterans of the guerrilla war and told them to seize the whites' land. Mobs ran amok, attacking white farmers, killing a few, terrorizing many and forcing almost all off their farms. When a CBC crew came to one "liberated" farm, we, like the farmer, were driven off by a rock-throwing gang.

I use the expression "so-called veterans" because, in talking to them, I discovered many were no more than five years old when the guerrilla war ended.

Many of the choicest farms went to Mugabe's ministers and senior officers, and the largely agricultural economy entered a death spiral.
Violence and anarchy on farms as squatters chase white farmers off their land 2:40

In the first decade of the new century, an opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai, became politically powerful as it promised an end to corruption and chaos.

Mugabe responded in character. His followers beat up MDC people. Tsvangirai was arrested, beaten up and charged with subversion. But he carried on, even defeating Mugabe 47 to 43 per cent in the first round of a presidential election in 2008. Tsvangirai said he won 50 per cent of the vote outright but the result was rigged.

He refused to contest the second round, citing widespread violence and intimidation by Mugabe's men.

Mugabe then reversed field dramatically, agreeing to a government of national unity with Tsvangirai as prime minister. The position carried virtually no power and was abolished in a new constitution in 2013.

Possible succession battle

Mugabe is once again rolling out his aggressive tactics, but there are big cracks in his regime's facade. The biggest is the defection of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, long a pillar of Mugabe's power.
Grace Mugabe talks to Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Both may be trying to get in position to succeed Robert Mugabe as leader of Zimbabwe. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

In July, the association denounced Mugabe and his methods, calling him dictatorial, egocentric and manipulative.

This may be part of an unseemly succession battle being fought almost out in public. The two leading contenders appear to be Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Mugabe's wife Grace.

And despite the threats and violence, protesters promise more action and strikes at the end of August.

He has wrong-footed his opponents before, but this time the endgame may be approaching for the angry old leader.

A Zimbabwean activist holds a placard in Pretoria, South Africa, during a march to the Zimbabwe Embassy on July 14. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.

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