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Wednesday, 13 March, 2002, 09:00 GMT
Mugabe's descent into dictatorship
President Robert Mugabe
Mugabe has undergone a radical change of image
Joseph Winter

Robert Mugabe has beaten Morgan Tsvangirai to win a controversial fifth term as Zimbabwe's president.

If he stays in power for the full six-year term, he will rule the country until the age of 84.

The last thing most octogenarians would want is the onerous task of running a country in economic free-fall and facing international isolation.

Mugabe is our king

Zanu-PF's Didymus Mutasa
Many Zimbabweans, and others, are asking why he does not just put his feet up and enjoy his remaining years with his young family.

But if nothing else, Mr Mugabe is an extremely proud man.

He will only step down when his "revolution" is complete. He says this means the redistribution of white-owned land but he also wants to hand-pick his successor, who must of course come from within the ranks of his Zanu-PF party.

This would also ensure a peaceful old age, with no investigation into his time in office.

Freedom fighter

One senior party official told me that the defeat of the government's proposed constitution in February 2000 - which showed the strength of the opposition - had set back Mr Mugabe's retirement by several years.

That defeat stirred him into action, transforming him from a relatively relaxed man contemplating his twilight years, into someone desperate to remain at any cost, even willing to destroy the country he had fought to liberate.

Mugabe with Castro
Mugabe still asserts his socialist credentials

The key to understanding Mr Mugabe is the 1970s guerrilla war where he made his name. World opinion saw him as a revolutionary hero, fighting racist white minority rule for the freedom of his people.

Since Zimbabwe's independence in 1980 the world has moved on, but his outlook remains the same. The heroic socialist forces of Zanu-PF, are still fighting the twin evils of capitalism and colonialism.

His opponents, in particular the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), are labelled "sell-outs" to white and foreign interests and, as during the war, this tag has been a death warrant for many MDC supporters.


But Mr Mugabe's critics - and these days they are many in a country where he was once an untouchable figure - say that despite his socialist rhetoric, his rule has been one of state capitalism which has not materially benefited ordinary Zimbabweans.

The president's political cronies have meanwhile been given lucrative state contracts irrespective of how they perform, and the economy as a whole has suffered.

Whenever economics gets in the way of politics, politics wins every time

Professor Tony Hawkins

Harare, a hotbed of political opposition, frequently buzzes with rumours of Mr Mugabe's impending death.

While the predictions have always proved premature, the increasing strain of recent years has obviously taken its toll and his once-impeccable presentation now looks a little worn.

But at 78, he still has remarkable stamina. His second wife, Grace, 35, says that he wakes up at 0400 for his daily exercises. In 1997, she gave birth to their third child, Chatunga.


He professes to be a staunch Catholic, and worshippers at Harare's Catholic Cathedral are occasionally swamped by security guards as he turns up for Sunday Mass.

However, Mr Mugabe's beliefs did not prevent him from having two children by his young secretary, Grace, while his popular Ghanaian first wife, Sally, was dying from cancer.

Robert and Grace Mugabe
Grace says he wakes at 4am for his exercises

One of the undoubted achievements of the former teacher's 21 years in power is the expansion of education. Zimbabwe has the highest literacy rate in Africa at 85% of the population.

Political scientist Masipula Sithole says that, ironically, by expanding education, the president is "digging his own grave".

The young beneficiaries are now able to analyse Zimbabwe's problems for themselves and most blame government corruption and mismanagement for the lack of jobs and rising prices.


Having realised his political mistake, Mr Mugabe is now trying to disenfranchise the young, who generally want political change - and jobs.

As many others have found, it is far easier to find ways of sharing the national cake than to make it grow bigger. Professor Tony Hawkins of the University of Zimbabwe sums it up by saying that "whenever economics gets in the way of politics, politics wins every time".

Young MDC supporter
Those educated by Mugabe now want change

But, in his own way, Mr Mugabe is indeed a clever politician. As his fortunes have declined, he has resurrected the nationalist agenda of the 1970s - land redistribution and anti-colonialism.

He unleashed his personal militia - the self-styled war veterans - who are using violence and murder as an electoral strategy.

It may not be playing by the rules but it is widely believed to have ensured the Zanu-PF victory in the June 2000 parliamentary elections and may work again in 2002.


The man who fought for one-man, one-vote now wants potential voters to prove their residence with utility bills, which the young, unemployed opposition core is unlikely to have.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that Mr Mugabe is becoming a cartoon figure of the archetypal African dictator.

Zanu-PF militia
The Zanu-PF militia is accused of attacking opposition supporters

And during the current presidential campaign, he has taken to wearing brightly-coloured shirts, emblazoned with his face - a style copied from many of Africa's notorious rulers.

For the preceding 20 years, this conservative man was only seen in public with either a stiff suit and tie or safari suit.

One of Mr Mugabe's closest associates, Didymus Mutasa, told me that in Zimbabwean culture, kings are only replaced when they die "and Mugabe is our king".

But if Zimbabweans feel they have been cheated at the polls, they may look for an alternative way to remove him.

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See also:

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