Mugabe's rise and fall are template for difficult era in Africa's history
The Zimbabwean president's past may give clues to what he'll do as he faces tough decisions about staying in office.
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — With President Robert Mugabe's options dwindling in the wake of the Zimbabwe elections, a curtain seems to be falling on a long and painful era in modern African history — the final tragic act, as it were, of the post-colonial Big Man.
Political analysts — not to mention millions of ordinary Zimbabweans — would be quick to warn that it is too soon to be writing political obituaries for Mugabe, an impoverished carpenter's son who, like Cuba's Castro and China's Mao, absorbed so much raw power as a ruler that he virtually has come to symbolize his country. A canny strategist with a long memory for slights and betrayals, he has ruled Zimbabwe for 28 years, mostly through a mix of patronage and brutality.
But with the opposition now claiming victory and his party losing its majority in parliament, the aged ex-guerrilla fighter faces some tough decisions.
If a presidential runoff is needed, analysts agree Mugabe would lose any rematch against a unified opposition alliance.
News reports say some of Mugabe's panicked generals and cronies have urged him to hold onto power by any means, including vote-rigging or force. Mysteriously, Mugabe hasn't made a public appearance since Saturday's vote.
"Really, it's all but over," said Nkosana Moyo, the campaign director for Simba Makoni, an opposition candidate. "He can't win. Not without declaring some sort of coup. And I don't think he will do that."
Yet experts familiar with the epic life story of Mugabe, an 84-year-old anti-colonial fighter and a ruthless autocrat, doubt he will yield power so easily. And some are parsing his biography to predict his moves in the critical days ahead.
Few careers track the arc of 20th-century African history like that of Mugabe's, a young schoolteacher who began an idealistic struggle against white rule in the old Rhodesia the early 1960s, when anti-colonial activists stripped off their ties and shoes at rallies to embrace their "Africanness" and who has ended up the clichéd strongman of today.
Born in 1924 into a world of racism and deprivation, the young Mugabe studied at a Catholic mission station, where he excelled and was chosen for teacher training. His father abandoned the family to work in South Africa. A revered elder brother died at age 15, apparently after being poisoned. Those harsh experiences eventually hardened him, experts say, for the long years of freedom fighting ahead, which included 10 years in a Rhodesian jail.
An avowed Marxist-Leninist, he assumed power in 1980 after a bloody guerrilla war and immediately surprised former colonial ruler Britain by inviting white farmers to remain in the newly named Zimbabwe. Such magnanimity toward former enemies was contrasted with acts of mass brutality: In the late 1980s, his army reportedly slaughtered tens of thousands of ethnic Matebeles belonging to a rival faction.
In 2000, citing broken promises by Britain to help pay for land reforms, Mugabe authorized the violent takeover of white farms. With the destruction of the nation's agricultural sector, Zimbabwe's economy, once the envy of Africa, collapsed.
According to unconfirmed reports in Wednesday's edition of the South African newspaper The Star, members of Mugabe's military staff, such as officers involved in old massacres, are advising Mugabe to hold out in the face of a possible defeat.
Rumors — officially denied — continued swirling furiously around Zimbabwe, reporting that the opposition was in secret talks to ease Mugabe's exit.
But several veteran Zimbabwe-watchers doubted he would step down without a fight. "He enjoys a punch-up — it's what keeps him alive," said Heidi Holland, a South African journalist who recently interviewed him.
"In his mind, he is Zimbabwe," Holland said. "I think the atmosphere in his office right now isn't chaos. He isn't going to pieces. He's probably plotting feverishly to rig things. It's going to take a general to come through his door and say, 'OK, the time is up.' "
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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