‘Mugabe or die’
Like thunder rumbling out of Africa, journalist Peter Godwin talks of the menacing buildup of violence that precedes voting in Zimbabwe.
There is a surreal mix of desperation and hope; intimidation and fear; courage and cowardice. Women are gang-raped, men are shattered by torture, hospitals overflow with the maimed.
“There is always an uptick in violence and oppression in the teeth of an election,” Mr. Godwin says. “In the last few months, we’ve reached that point in the cycle where we see more pressure, more arrests, cyclical violence.
“Since the national unity government began, some 27 months ago, more than a quarter of the opposition MPs have been imprisoned,” he notes.
Just last week, a dozen students, trade unionists and political activists in Harare were arrested for watching Al Jazeera and BBC news reports of the uprisings that have swept the Arab world.
They were accused of participating in an illegal meeting that aimed “to subvert a constitutionally elected government.”
In April, the opposition minister responsible for national healing, reconciliation and integration in the power-sharing unity government was imprisoned for five days. His crime: He had attended an “illegal memorial service” to mark the murders of 20,000 Ndebele civilians in the 1980s by troops loyal to Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean President.
Since mass protests began to topple despotic Arab governments, Mr. Mugabe’s regime has intensified a crackdown on dissidents and banned several public meetings and marches. With elections slated for next year, his backers are, once again, on the offensive.
Mr. Godwin, in Toronto this week on a book tour, says he fears Zimbabwe may be heading for a replay of the violence that ravaged the country in 2008. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, where he has been a policeman, a lawyer and a journalist, working for the BBC and London’s Sunday Times, he says he became a stenographer of the country’s suffering.
His three memoirs document Zimbabwe’s descent from one of the most beautiful and bountiful lands in Africa to a man-made disaster.
In 1996 he wrote Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, a memoir of his boyhood in white minority-ruled Rhodesia, where his father ran a factory and his mother, a doctor, organized a rural health clinic. This was followed by the 2007 bestseller, When the Crocodile Eats the Sun, which catalogued the catastrophes that accompanied Mr. Mugabe’s evolution into a brutal dictator.
Now, his latest book, The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe, describes in brutal detail the horrors of the 2008 elections.
When he returned to Zimbabwe in 2008 on an assignment for Vanity Fair magazine, Mr. Godwin thought he was coming “to dance on Robert Mugabe’s political grave.” Zimbabweans had voted against the octogenarian dictator. The reasons were not hard to seek, he writes.
“Once they enjoyed the highest standard of living in Africa. Now their money is nearly worthless, halving in value every 24 hours. Only 6% of workers have jobs. Their incomes have shrunk to pre-1950 levels. They are starving. Their schools are closed, their hospitals collapsed. Their life expectancy has crashed from 60 to 36. They have the world’s highest ratio of orphans. They are officially the unhappiest people on earth and they are fleeing the shattered country in the millions -an exodus of up to a third of the population.”
But there was little joy or dancing. When the election results were released, after weeks of delay, they were rigged to reduce opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai’s margin of victory to a level that required a run-off vote.
Mr. Mugabe had no intention of losing. To cling to power, he unleashed a campaign of terror and intimidation. Villagers were beaten en masse and told “Vote Mugabe next time or you will die.” The regime’s generals called it Operation Mavhoterapapi? (Who did you vote for?) To victims it was simply chidudu, the fear.
“Mugabe has a long history of using violence as a default reaction to political opposition,” Mr. Godwin says. “You can go all the way back into his political DNA and you see he uses it again and again.. He would rather lay waste to the country than relinquish power.”
In 2008, the writer visited villages burned by war vets and pro-Mugabe youth brigades. He toured torture bases and interviewed victims in overcrowded hospitals. He talked to opposition leaders and the few remaining white farmers who were being targeted.
“White man’s flesh marks easily, it is a pale canvas on which the path of pain is easily painted,” he writes in The Fear. “But it takes a lot more to mark a black man. Somehow, the palette of black wounds seem more violent, tearing down through dark skin, into the yellow curd of subcutaneous fat, the red gristle of muscle fibres, down to the shocking whiteness of bones.”
Mr. Godwin describes hospital wards filled with traumatized and terrified Zimbabweans who had been assaulted by pro-Mugabe thugs.
“Think of bone-deep lacerations with no skin left, think of being flayed alive,” he says. “Think of swollen, broken feet, of people unable to stand, unable to sit, unable to lie on their backs because of the blinding pain.”
For the most part, the West has ignored their sufferings.
Mr. Mugabe was allowed to hold onto power as Zimbabwe’s neighbours pressured the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to join a Mugabe-led unity government in exchange for vague promises of reform that never came.
“It is a moral stain on the international community,” says Mr. Godwin. “Because the Zimbabwe opposition was peaceful, because it refused to take up arms, because they are not strategic, because they don’t export oil or terrorism, they’ve been ignored.”
Now, the country is braced for a repetition of past atrocities.
“Were normality to be restored to Zimbabwe, were Mugabe to die tomorrow and they have free and fair elections, which, according to the polls, the opposition would win hands down, I think the place could be rehabilitated astonishingly quickly,” says Mr. Godwin.
But if Mr. Mugabe and his cronies hang on, Zimbabwe may once again be filled with fear.
“You realize these guys are never going to leave,” says Mr. Godwin. “What were we thinking? They are only ever going to be forced out. How long is it going to take for us to realize that? They will do whatever is necessary to stay in power.”