Robert Mugabe – The great survivor

Neil Clark
Neil Clark is a journalist, writer, broadcaster and blogger. He has written for many newspapers and magazines in the UK and other countries including The Guardian, Morning Star, Daily and Sunday Express, Mail on Sunday, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, The Spectator, The Week, and The American Conservative. He is a regular pundit on RT and has also appeared on BBC TV and radio, Sky News, Press TV and the Voice of Russia. He is the co-founder of the Campaign For Public Ownership @PublicOwnership. His award winning blog can be found at He tweets on politics and world affairs @NeilClark66
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (Reuters/Tiksa Negeri)
How to explain the extraordinary durability of Robert Mugabe? The Zimbabwean President, who is 91 in February, and who has led his country since 1980 has just been elected the new Chairman of the African Union.

Not only that he has been confirmed as the ruling Zanu-PF candidate in the 2017 Presidential elections, when- (if he‘s still alive) - he will be all of 93 years young.

On a personal level Mugabe is a great advert for the health benefits of herbal teas, sadza made from unrefined grains, regular exercise and a generally abstemious lifestyle. But politically, how has he managed to survive so long

It’s incredible to think that when Mugabe first became the leader of his country Jimmy Carter was the US President,

Leonid Brezhnev was in charge of the Soviet Union and Tito was still running communist Yugoslavia. Mugabe has seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US-led wars against Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and a whole host of world leaders come and go.

The ‘dominant narrative’ is that Mugabe has stayed in power so long because he is a ruthless dictator who clamps down hard on any opposition, but it's a lot more complex than that, and in any case it would be inaccurate to label Zimbabwe a 'dictatorship'.

View of Zimbabwe

I was in Zimbabwe recently and the first Zimbabwean newspaper I opened contained a blistering attack on Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party in its Op-ed pages. It was an attack far stronger than anything you’d read about David Cameron in the British press, with the exception of the Morning Star, Britain‘s only socialist daily. Dictatorships don’t normally have newspapers which carry fierce personal attacks on the country’s leader.

What struck me most about politics in Zimbabwe, from my reading of newspapers, and listening to the radio and television (it was the week of the Zanu-PF National People’s Congress in Harare) was the vibrancy of debate. Very few topics- even corruption in government circles- seemed to be ’off limits’. One program I watched on prime time state television was an interview with a leading economist in which he talked very frankly about the economic problems the country was still facing. Again, not the sort of thing you'd find in a genuine 'dictatorship'.

Mugabe’s rule can be described as authoritarian. He has relished his ‘strong man’ image.

The worst crimes of the Mugabe era undoubtedly took place in the 1980s when, during an anti-government insurgency, perhaps as many as 20,000 people were killed in Matabeleland by government security forces. Ironically, it took place at a time when Zimbabwe still had Western support. Mugabe has said that the killings were “a moment of madness” and his former Justice Minister later admitted that they gave him sleepless nights.

Popular support

Although it has faced harassment and intimidation at times, there does exist a functioning opposition in Zimbabwe, unlike in some countries which the ‘pro-democracy’ West regards as ‘allies’. In any case, whatever the problems the country faces, Zimbabwe under Mugabe is certainly more democratic than what came before it. Mugabe was imprisoned for ten years under white-minority rule in Rhodesia, and was even refused to leave prison to attend the funeral of his first son who had died from malaria at the age of three. Yet Mugabe’s jailor, Ian Smith, lived free under Mugabe’s rule.

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We’re not really supposed to say this, but Mugabe wouldn’t have been able to survive this long if he didn’t have sizeable public support within the country. Even opponents of Mugabe acknowledge the leading role he played in his country’s battle for independence, democracy and majority rule. Mugabe, whatever one thinks of his politics and style of government, did put his life on the line fighting for his country’s liberation. His status as a hero of independence gave him a large amount of political capital, which has still not been exhausted as evidenced by Mugabe‘s 2013 re-election, which observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said was “generally credible” and had reflected the “will of the people.”

Another reason for Mugabe’s durability is that it has been all too easy for him to portray his opponents as Western lackeys, working to make his country a Western colony once again.
American interests

It’s no secret that the US and Britain have favored ‘regime change’ in Zimbabwe for a long time now and have backed the ‘democratic’ opposition to Mugabe’s rule. US sanctions were applied on Zimbabwe in 2001 under the Zimbabwe Democracy and Recovery Act, the EU followed suit in 2002. WikiLeaks showed us the US strategy in 2007/8, ahead of the Presidential elections. “Our policy is working and it's helping to drive change here. What are required are simply the grit, determination and focus to see this through. Then, when the changes finally come we must be ready to move quickly to help consolidate the new dispensation." US Ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell wrote in a cable in 2007.

Last November, Zimbabwe’s Sunday News claimed that in July 2013 the US government dispatched a suspected CIA spy on a mission to get Members of the Zimbabwean Parliament to pass a vote of no confidence in President Mugabe.
Mugabe is able to present himself as the great patriot, the man who will stand up to the new imperialists and colonialists. “We know the infiltration that has come; we know the discussions that have been happening to link up with MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) and be one with America which then will pour lots of money,” Mugabe said in December.

Mugabe offensive

Mugabe has undoubtedly been helped by the fact that his leading international enemies are greatly discredited figures, who have absolutely no right to take the moral high ground in criticizing him or indeed anyone else. Tony Blair and George Bush, the destroyers of Iraq, were at the forefront of the anti-Mugabe campaign in the noughties.

Mugabe’s attacks on Bush and Blair have been more outspoken than anything we’ve heard from leaders in the West. A great example is the speech he made about the deadly duo to the UN General Assembly in 2004. "We are now being coerced to accept and believe that a new political-cum-religious doctrine has arisen, namely that there is but one political God, George W Bush, and Tony Blair is his prophet." He accused the US and UK of "raining bombs and hell-fire on innocent Iraqis, purportedly in the name of democracy."

Mugabe has also attacked the NATO-led war against Libya and Western policy towards Syria. “Those Western countries in pursuit of hegemony as they pretend to be advocates of democracy must be resisted,” he told the UN General Assembly in 2013. A year earlier he said that NATO countries that had bombed Libya were “inspired by the arrogant belief that they are the most powerful of us.”

Last August he attacked Israel for what he described as “the continuing butchering of women and children in Gaza.” “The Western world which claims a high moral ground on issues of human rights and the sanctity of life have looked, with moral and academic indifference to the situation, while the Israeli army continues to butcher innocent women and children, all under the false guise of fighting terrorists. Is Israel that precious to allow it to go on like this? Why should the Israeli army not be stopped?” Mugabe asked.

Mugabe’s outspokenness has undoubtedly been a major factor in his retention of power. No one can say that he is a politician who sits on the fence. We always know exactly where he stands.

Zimbabweans, who may not support Mugabe’s domestic policies, nevertheless admire the way their President gets to the podium at the UN and denounces the most powerful countries on the planet in language that few other leaders would dare use.

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Strength through indifference

Arguably Mugabe’s greatest strength, and the number one reason why he has lasted so long, is that he really doesn’t care what his enemies think of him. A very big mistake made by several leaders whose countries have been threatened by the US and its allies is to believe that acting reasonably towards those who are clearly out to destroy them will help prevent the attacks. Slobodan Milosevic, for instance, hosted the obnoxious warmonger and virulently anti-Serb Richard Holbrooke or talks in Belgrade - only a few months before his country was bombed by Holbrooke and his cronies. Muammar Gaddafi warmly embraced Western leaders only a few years before his country was destroyed by the West. Mugabe hasn’t made this mistake. He seems to understand that if you let your enemies know that you care what they think about you- you empower them. Worst still if you invite them round to your house for tea and biscuits. Mugabe doesn’t let his opponents dictate his behavior.

Neo-cons and the faux-left want us to share their anti-Serb prejudices, and will attack us if we don’t join in the Serb-bashing, but the Zimbabwean President isn’t bothered. “Serbia is the only country in the world that we can consider a perfect friend,” he told Serbian TV last February, adding: “We love Yugoslavia.” Mugabe has also blown a raspberry at the “west’s anti-Russian lobby, with his government signing up to a $3bn mining deal with Moscow in September. Mugabe has attacked Western sanctions on Russia, again in a typically outspoken way. “They are illegal sanctions. So you have a lawless part of our international community seeking to dominate the rest of the world and we say no!”

Mugabe really doesn't care if those he considers his enemies like him or not, or approve of his policies. That gives him a certain strength that other leaders might not have. Even if we don’t support him, or agree with every position he takes (his strong opposition to gay rights for instance would be anathema to many western progressives), you have to admire Mugabe’s defiance and his continued ability to ruffle feathers even into his nineties. His inaugural speech as Chairman of the African Union showed that ‘Comrade Robert Mugabe’ has no intention of cooling it, he declared that Africa’s wealth belongs to Africa and not “‘imperialists and colonialists.”

The long-serving President of Zimbabwe is undoubtedly a man who divides opinion but if we cast him as a pantomime villain, which is how he is routinely portrayed in the West, we don't really get close to understanding how he has lasted this long.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.