Book Reviews - Spring 2011

Terrorist in Chief

Can anything keep Zimbabwe from slipping back into despotism?

By Paul Salopek | March 2, 2011


The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin; Little, Brown; 384 pp.; $26.99

Pity Zimbabwe. It remains a cause in search of a movement.

After more than a decade of stolen elections and a pogrom masquerading as urban renewal that bulldozed 750,000 poor people from their homes; after millions more of its citizens have hopped its borders, fleeing economic ruin and the mass rapes, beatings, and murders that mark the government’s periodic campaigns of political terror, the carnival of woes tormenting one of Africa’s loveliest countries rolls murkily on.

President Robert Mugabe, the Botoxed, blood-transfused, and vitamin-shake-swilling octogenarian who once compared himself to Hitler, is tolerating a power-sharing deal with members of his democratic opposition. But perhaps sensing their demoralization, he appears to be preparing yet another sham election in June. Not that he need fear much in the way of global outrage. Nobody will be rallying in Central Park to “Save Zimbabwe” anytime soon.

“My wife, Joanna, who edits a fashion magazine, suggests that this is because we lack a celebrity cheerleader,” writes Zimbabwean author and journalist Peter Godwin, “a Clooney, a Farrow, a Damon, Jolie, or Pitt.”

In The Fear, his fourth book about his ill-starred homeland, Godwin exposes the more complicated reasons for the world’s weariness with Zimbabwe’s agonies. Foremost is Mugabe himself, a shrewd autocrat who excels at calibrating his oppression to thwart effective international response. A hopelessly outmatched domestic political opposition doesn’t help. (Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s nemesis, is no Aung San Suu Kyi.) Nor, doubtless, does Zimbabwe’s previous incarnation as white-ruled Rhodesia, a tainted legacy that may give pause to human-rights activists who prefer uncomplicated crusades.

Given Godwin’s truly horrific account of all this, The Fear is a timely corrective in a year when the country risks slipping back into full-bore despotism.

Godwin, who was born in Zimbabwe, visits the country of his youth in 2008, during the chaos surrounding its last election. He dodges police and the plainclothes henchmen from Mugabe’s feared Central Intelligence Organization, who can imprison him at any moment for his clandestine reporting. Along the way, Godwin intercuts the muted sorrows of his life in exile—his ailing mother, a longtime doctor in Zimbabwe, withers away in Britain; he lives in New York City—with dramatic tales of the brave Zimbabweans who have stayed behind, sacrificing their freedom, bodies, and sometimes their lives on the altar of Mugabe’s dictatorship.

There is Didira Chipiro, the wife of an organizer for the Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe’s oft-swindled opposition party. When intelligence agents can’t locate her husband to torture, they grab Chipiro instead, chop off her right hand and both her feet, then burn her corpse in her house.

There is Roy Bennett, a bluff opposition politician who returns from exile to join the cabinet of a frail new national unity government. He is abducted and bundled into secret detention by Mugabe’s goons. “Leave me here for as long as it takes,” Bennett grimly tells his colleagues when they find him in a reeking jail. “Don’t trade me for anything.” (He was eventually acquitted of charges of terrorism and released.)

And then there is the remarkable Chenjerai Man­­­­gezo, an impoverished farmer who dares to stand against the ruling ZANU-PF party in village elections. One night Mugabe’s militants drag him from his hut and beat him nearly to death. “You had better be sure to kill me,” he croaks at his attackers as they snap his bones with clubs. “Because if you don’t, I am going to come after you, all of you.” Grinning, he later attends his swearing-in ceremony in a full-body cast plastered with opposition stickers. He shares the dais with his glaring attackers.

On and on it goes, remorselessly: the torched village, the starvation policy targeting regime enemies, the crochet hook shoved up a political prisoner’s urethra—ordinary Zimbabweans’ capacity to absorb pain for their democratic ideals beggars belief. Perhaps they simply recall what they are fighting for: the high literacy rate, massive food exports, and fabled national parks of the halcyon years after independence in 1980.

The strength of Godwin’s reporting lies in his trusted network of contacts inside the country. From guilt-ridden ruling-party insiders to battered schoolteachers, they help him go places where few other journalists dare. He drives into rural zones still smoking from Mugabe’s voter intimidation campaigns. (Stockpiles of Western-donated food flash by, alternating with ruling-party torture bases—the infernal paradox of humanitarian aid ­propping up evil.) He dons a doctor’s smock and tours clinics groaning with horribly mutilated voters. He joins legal representatives in prisons where 25 men pack a cell meant to hold a fifth of that number.

And as our Dante in Zimbabwe’s hell, Godwin succeeds at capturing the surreality of the regime’s workaday brand of repression.

A musty anti-colonialist in Saville Row suits, Mugabe likes to wrap his cudgel in a veneer of bureaucratic normality. Lawyers defend torture victims in the courts, but judges are arrested when they rule against the government. A policeman berates Godwin for blocking traffic, then goes back to cracking women’s and children’s skulls with his stave. And two Anglican bishops—one legitimate, the other a pro-Mugabe usurper—duel, prissily, with their ceremonial crosiers inside a sedate Harare cathedral.

It’s government as cargo cult. Behind the cello­phane-thin trappings of state lies the rot of infantilizing patronage—from luxury Mercedes Benzes for bigwigs to crisp $100 bills for loyal soldiers.

Godwin’s documentary approach sometimes overwhelms his storytelling; numbingly detailed casualty reports and a thicket of place names at times slow the narrative down. But his outrage mostly serves him well. He notes that as Mugabe dodders on, it is his coterie of murderous en­forcers who have the most to lose. The ruling party hardliners who coordinated the latest crackdowns, like Air Marshal Perence Shiri (“The Butcher of Matabeleland”), are also guilty of carrying out Mugabe’s massacres against minority amaNdebele people in the 1980s. They rightly fear prosecution as war criminals.

Life has eased somewhat in Zimbabwe since the events described in Godwin’s book. Under the rickety coalition government, the country’s economic free fall has been arrested. Diamond strikes are ­a lucrative new source of revenue. But the prognosis isn’t good.

For this reason The Fear carries the weight of a tombstone—not for a brutal cabal that may hang on even after Mugabe is gone, but for a lost Zimbabwe.

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