Yes, He Has No Bananas

Yes, He Has No Bananas

Mini Teaser: Despot Watch chronicles the accelerating ruin of Zimbabwe and its dictator.

by Author(s): Joe-Bob Briggs

What possessed Robert Mugabe to start wearing the wispy little Hitlerian mustache? Fortunately, he has the big saucer eyeglasses and the statesmanlike receding hairline to announce his grandfatherly intentions. We could send over the cast of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" to straighten him out, but unfortunately, the entire cast would be seized and imprisoned for ten years as soon as they set foot in Zimbabwe, under Mugabe's "worse than dogs or pigs" statutes. Mugabe used these laws to throw Zimbabwe's ex-president, Canaan Banana, into prison, claiming all gays contribute to the aids crisis (highest infection rate in the world; 20 percent of the Zimbabwean population; 2,000 dying each week). Besides having a name that sounds like someone who would march in the Gay Pride Parade, Mr. Banana had been caught in flagrante aardvarko, and so the dignity of the state was at risk.

Robert Mugabe must get a lot of email from the Pope. As the last great Roman Catholic dictator, Mugabe can't risk the confessional in a nation full of spies and enemies and vengeance-seeking widows, so I would imagine he improvises. He uses the old "enemies of the state" stratagem. There were those who said that Canaan Banana--sorry, I can't help repeating the name--was simply a political enemy who was conveniently removed when he misused his banana. But normally, Mugabe is not shy about simply saying, "He's a traitor." Virtually none of the traitors are traitors in the Western sense. They are traitors only under the narrow definition of failing to support the Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front Party. (And doesn't that just trip nicely off the tongue? It must be hell at outdoor rallies. "All together now: Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front Forever! Okay, again! Zimbabwe African...")

At any rate, Mugabe's willingness to designate virtually anyone, including the official weather forecaster, as an enemy of the state, is a fairly common occupational quirk among despots both ancient and modern. In Mugabe's case, it's a self-deception, but I think it's an honest self-deception. He really does think that any enemy of him personally is an enemy of Zimbabwe. After all, he has all those United Nations citations to prove that he's a good guy, doing the best he can.

I think it's important to Mugabe to be remembered as a good guy. He's eighty years old and has so many ailments (cancer of the throat, cancer of the prostate, at least one stroke) that he must know he's dying, and yet he holds onto power like a possessed man. (Somehow you can't imagine Mugabe taking one of those Boston University retired-dictator-in-residence gigs.) He's reached the stage that corresponds to the last three years of Ivan the Terrible's life, when suddenly Ivan decided he needed to find the names of every single person he had ever killed, take them to a church, and have a priest read them out and bless them. This was a considerable undertaking, requiring thousands of bureaucrats inquiring in hundreds of places. Ivan, like Mugabe, was a religious man, and he sensed a reckoning.

What's odd in Mugabe's case is that while he's cracking up, he's also still cracking down. Two of his most recent legal fictions--the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (to deal with the press) and the Public Order and Security Act (to deal with opposition parties)--are reminiscent of Stalin in the 1930s. He's basically given himself the right to arrest, imprison, torture, suppress and--that staple of Marxists everywhere--invent anything that he needs. I'm not kidding about the weather forecaster. When the national weather forecasting service recently predicted two more years of drought, Mugabe seized control of the service and ordered that all future forecasting be in the form of secret memos to himself, followed by rosy rewriting for the official press release. Mugabe's brain right now regards the weather itself as subversive. (Yeah, nature as enemy: it's like when Xerxes ordered the Hellespont lashed a hundred times for destroying his pontoon attack bridge to Europe.) The last three years have pretty much ruined his international reputation, so all he has left to fight for is the idea that no one ever turned him out, that the people still want him, that Zimbabwe is Mugabe.

Well, unfortunately, Zimbabwe is not even Zimbabwe anymore. Mugabe may get email from the Pope, but what the rest of us get is African spam from guys claiming to be Mugabe's relatives or Zimbabwean government officials who have stolen money they want to slip into your account. There are several reasons that Zimbabwe is the most popular country used for spam con games. One is that it's impossible to actually check anything in Zimbabwe. The government is in chaos, the telecommunications system barely works, and most of the honest bureaucrats have been driven out. The idea that a Zimbabwean official would even have functional email is a stretch. The second reason is that there are hundreds of relatives and cronies who have stolen money from the nation, not to mention the high-ranking military officials and Mugabe relatives who have been trying to sell "blood diamonds" from the Congo on the black market. If you do a Google search on "Zimbabwe corruption", you get 492,000 links. Sure the spammers occasionally try a new face--Charles Taylor, Saddam Hussein--but they always return to the man whose name is high-concept for thievery.

And yet it wasn't always that way. Despite his violent past--ten years in prison under Ian Smith's Rhodesia, six years of guerrilla warfare in which he fought with Joshua Nkomo almost as much as with Smith--he was acclaimed at his 1980 inauguration as the new breed of African leader who would bring white and black together, heal old wounds, and use the wealth of the country to bring education and job training to the masses. What no one noticed is that even then Mugabe had all the paranoiac traits of a tyrant. He could never accept that most basic idea that preserves democracy--the idea of the loyal opposition. (We shouldn't be too harsh on him. The French in 1789 didn't understand it either.) In Zimbabwe, a political enemy was a mortal enemy, so one by one he cut the various interest groups out of the picture.

First to go, of course, were the white farmers. In the 1979 deal brokered by Britain to allow majority rule, the whites were to retain twenty protected seats in a Parliament of one hundred. But Mugabe didn't like minority parties. He didn't like Ian Smith's minority party (banning him from politics in 1987 and taking the twenty parliamentary seats away), and he especially didn't like his old revolutionary comrade Joshua Nkomo's minority party. In Nkomo's case he not only outlawed the party, but he commissioned the famous Fifth Brigade--military killers financed by China and trained by North Korea--to wipe out 25,000 pesky citizens from the minority Ndebele tribe. (These are the same Ndebele that Cecil Rhodes had to fight off, then buy off, then fight off again when he founded Rhodesia in the 1890s. By contrast, Rhodes pacified the nation with a body count of only 5,000.)

By the time the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) showed up in the late 1990s, Mugabe was outflanked. Ian Smith was a member. The ailing elderly Nkomo was a member. And for once Mugabe's paranoia was justified: it seemed that a majority of Zimbabweans were members. With too many people to intimidate, torture or kill, he resorted to that tried and true formula for rousing the masses to your side--blame everything on the rich white farmers. It took Mugabe exactly three years to destroy his own country. Somewhere along the way he also dropped out of the British Commonwealth, thereby cutting off any chance of help from Tony Blair. And if R.W. Johnson's argument in this issue is correct, Mugabe may even be in cahoots with Al-Qaeda, thereby increasing the chance that Tony Blair will cut off his head.

One of the remarkable things about the crumbling Zimbabwe was the strength of the judiciary. Time after time, Mugabe's directives, policies and actions were declared illegal by the courts, forcing him to change course if for no other reason than to avoid international sanctions. It seems that some of those old British institutions, but especially the High Court, just wouldn't give up. Even controlling 147 of the 150 seats in Parliament, Mugabe was unable to hold onto laws that violated the original 1980 constitution. A government land seizure is such a complicated legal procedure that many of the white farmers--including Ian Smith--had held onto their property simply by repeatedly proving to the court that the expropriation was illegal and, furthermore, there was no compensation. Even as Mugabe was jetting back and forth to hospitals in South Africa in January 2004, he was declaring a new law--that all farms owned by whites could be seized at any time, without papers, without warning, and without compensation. Maybe that will get the job done.

A Hayseedic Regime

Essay Types: Essay