In Other Words

The Dictator’s Downfall

Tekere: A Lifetime of Struggle By Edgar Tekere 179 pages, Harare: Sapes, 2007 Robert Mugabe is in the fight of his political life. The 83-year-old president of Zimbabwe, never a stranger to controversy, is struggling to protect a legacy that most critics — and those who can read economic data — have already declared an ...

Tekere: A Lifetime of Struggle
By Edgar Tekere
179 pages, Harare: Sapes, 2007

Robert Mugabe is in the fight of his political life. The 83-year-old president of Zimbabwe, never a stranger to controversy, is struggling to protect a legacy that most critics — and those who can read economic data — have already declared an utter failure. After nearly 30 years in power, he has overseen an economic disaster that is without parallel in modern times. In office since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980, Mugabe now presides over a country with 80 percent unemployment, inflation officially topping 1,700 percent, and collapsing social services. He has single-handedly turned one of Africa’s most dynamic and self-sufficient nations into its most notorious mendicant. Yet he stubbornly clings to power, content to perpetuate the image of the nationalist hero, even though most of his compatriots would prefer to see him live out his days anywhere but Zimbabwe.

The headlong descent began in 1997, with unaffordable handouts to veterans of the country’s liberation war, and picked up speed in 2000, when Mugabe lost a referendum that would have ensconced his increasingly autocratic rule. He retaliated by seizing the farms of those he saw as financiers of a powerful new opposition bloc, the Movement for Democratic Change. Mugabe’s assault on white-owned farms plunged the country into a crisis from which it has not recovered. Tobacco production this year is forecast at a fifth of its 1999 level, and food output is down to a third of what it once was.

Economic collapse has been accompanied by severe repression of dissenting voices. Newspapers have been closed and public protests forbidden. But one prominent voice the regime is having difficulty silencing is, ironically, a founding member and former secretary-general of Mugabe’s own party, Zanu-PF. Once regarded as Mugabe’s equal in the nationalist movement, Edgar Tekere was the first to speak out on the corruption that has infested Zanu-PF’s ranks. Nearly 20 years later, he has returned to the political stage, fists waving, to challenge Mugabe’s self-serving claims to indispensability. His controversial new autobiography, Tekere: A Lifetime of Struggle, published in Harare in January, has emerged as both a corrective to the president’s pretensions and a rare example of the power of local opposition. Though no literary masterpiece, the book provides a useful insight into Tekere’s role in the nationalist struggle and his frank views of other key players, including the president.

Unlike widely available hagiographies, Tekere’s complaints about his former comrade range from the political to the personal, criticizing both his policies and leadership style. Tekere claims Mugabe was merely a reluctant recruit to the party he subsequently headed, unabashedly loyal to less radical leaders who were unprepared to engage in the revolutionary struggle that his colleagues saw as a necessary next step, and was distrusted by key military players once the party’s struggle against colonialism transferred to Mozambique.

This account punctures Mugabe’s carefully tailored self-image as the architect of the resistance and the heir to its legacy. And, of course, there is the obvious criticism about the country’s downward spiral. "The old saying rings true that you cannot hold one man responsible for all of a nation’s ills," Tekere writes. "But in Zimbabwe, it is becoming increasingly difficult not to believe that Robert Mugabe is right at the centre of the nation’s problems."

Occasionally, Tekere’s critiques appear irrational. He clearly had little time for Mugabe’s Ghanaian first wife, Sally, but considered her "more mature" than his current wife, Grace. He excoriates Mugabe for his refusal to wear a military uniform, revealing that he considers Mugabe more a "civilian bureaucrat" than a military leader. "He would sit in his office waiting for military briefings from me, and never took the initiative himself unless pushed," Tekere declares. "He couldn’t even salute." And there are occasional factual lapses: Sir Roy Welensky was prime minister of the ill-fated Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, not Southern Rhodesia; the British Conservative Party was in power for more than "a short while" after 1980 (17 years, in fact).

But perhaps the most damning claim comes from the book’s revisionist retelling of Mugabe’s response to one of his party’s bloodiest chapters. In November 1977, Rhodesian forces routed Zanu’s armed wing while it camped at Chimoio in Mozambique. Reacting to the 1,200 deaths — two thirds of whom, Tekere recalls, were women — and the serious blow to Zanu’s military strength, the author quotes Mugabe as having doubts about the armed struggle. "You know what, I’m beginning to wonder whether this is worthwhile, with all these people dying," the party’s president is reported as saying. Tekere recalls the incident with "a mixture of anger and disgust" upon seeing the leader of a serious military struggle having doubts about it halfway through.

Tekere’s book represents a significant intervention at a significant moment. Mugabe, surrounded by political courtiers and cheerleaders in the official press, has historically enjoyed cult status as the man who almost single-handedly delivered the country that was Rhodesia from political bondage. Now, though, Tekere is causing maximum presidential discomfort at precisely the moment Mugabe needs all the support he can muster to stay in office when his term expires next year. Even many of his own chief lieutenants oppose his bid to remain in power.

Which is why Mugabe has responded to Tekere’s best-seller so forcefully. He has openly criticized Tekere’s work as the product of a "very erratic, very impulsive, and temperamental" mind. The president even dredged up a 1980 incident in which Tekere was charged, though later acquitted, with the unprovoked killing of a white farm manager. And in March, his local Zanu-PF chapter expelled Tekere from the party. Tekere must have expected such a response when he wrote that "[the party] has become nothing more than a vehicle for elections. It has alienated itself from its urban base where it cannot even hold a political rally. . . . [It] is no longer close to the people without whom neither the struggle could have been won, nor the Zimbabwean state established in 1980."

But the importance of the book lies not so much in its account of political rivalries of the past, however bitter, but in the struggles of the present. In an interview just before his lavish birthday celebrations in February, Mugabe claimed Tekere was being used by his editor, Zimbabwean academic Ibbo Mandaza, to advance the interests of a faction championing his own vice president, Joice Mujuru, in the country’s raging war of succession. Mujuru, a wartime commander and member of Mugabe’s cabinet since 1980, does receive high marks from Tekere. "They are trying to campaign for Mujuru using the book," Mugabe declared in the interview. "You can’t become a president by using a biography. [Mujuru and her supporters] don’t realize they have done her more harm than good." The same could be said of Mugabe’s supporters who have denounced the book and its author as heretical.

Mugabe has warned those jostling for his job that there are "no vacancies." But the longer he stays, the worse things get. After 27 years of Mugabe, Zimbabwe has all the hallmarks of a failed state. In the end, Mugabe will probably find that his chief nemesis is a broken economy, not former comrades from a bygone era.

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