Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of
Zimbabwe By Martin Meredith. PublicAffairs, 243 pages, $26.00
By the time Robert Mugabe had led a guerrilla war against
Ian Smith's white regime in Rhodesia and spent 11 years in prison, whatever
idealism he had known in his youth had been battered out of him. Though he
considered himself a socialist when he came to power in 1980, Mugabe's entire
22-year reign in what became the Republic of Zimbabwe has been marked not by
concern for the welfare of his people but by his own determination to be
president for life. As every day brings new accounts of political repression in
Zimbabwe, Martin Meredith's timely book reminds us that this is politics as usual
Under Mugabe's rule, Zimbabwe has been a terrorized country. Villagers
have been massacred, journalists tortured. Mugabe has confiscated farms from
whites and from blacks who don't fall into political line (and then given the
farms to his friends); black farm workers have lost their jobs by the thousands.
Today, at least 60 percent of Zimbabwe's people are unemployed. As AIDS ravages
the population, life expectancy has dropped to 39 from 63 in 10 years. Meredith
tells the story of this awful, bloody trek right down to the eve of Zimbabwe's
recent discredited election.
Our Votes, Our Guns is a straightforward factual description of Mugabe's
early life and subsequent rule. This is very much an outsider's history, written
for the most part, apparently, from published accounts. (It is hard to know for
sure because Meredith provides no source notes, dropping quotes into the text
without indicating where they came from.) Although Meredith has reported on
Africa for the London Observer and Sunday Times, his book does not
have the close-to-the-ground feel of a journalist's tale in the manner of, for
example, Philip Gourevitch's chilling report of genocide in Rwanda, We Wish To
Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Yet so dramatic
is the story Meredith tells that even his flat factuality carries you along,
taking on momentum as he rolls down to his closing indictment: that Mugabe's
"sole purpose had become to hold on to power. Whatever the cost, his regime was
dedicated towards that end. Violence had paid off in the past; he expected it to
secure the future."
The problem for Mugabe is that his rule has never been secure: From the start
he has faced determined resistance, including opposition from former allies in
the nationalist struggle. White-ruled South Africa organized former Rhodesian
soldiers into a destabilization force that attempted to sabotage the new regime.
Dedicated to one-party rule, Mugabe would stamp out an opposing party only to see
another spring up in its place. Meanwhile, though some whites fled the country,
many of those who stayed held on to economic power, running large farms and
factories even as Mugabe's former foe Smith carped from the sidelines.
These would have been immense challenges even for a political genius. As
Meredith portrays him, Mugabe was not that. He was, in fact, relatively
inexperienced in politics. He had spent brief periods in South Africa and Ghana,
where he learned the rhetoric of socialism. A former teacher, he had devoted his
years as a political prisoner to self-education. But the most immediate,
practical lessons he learned about political life he learned from Smith, the man
who had put him in prison.
It is easy, as the past recedes, to forget the brutality of the colonial
system. We need to keep that in mind as we read accounts like Meredith's lest we
imagine that African despots invented today's political nightmares all by
themselves. Meredith does not deny the role colonial life played in setting
Zimbabwe up for failure, but he leaves largely unexplored the colonial and
cold-war crucible in which Mugabe concocted his political style.
Nor does Meredith attempt to answer this question, raised by the evidence he
provides: Could Mugabe have done better given the challenges he faced? How can
you transform a country of commercial farms into a country of small family farms?
To keep his promise of giving white-owned land to the people, Mugabe would have
had to dismantle Zimbabwe's existing economy and put in place a radically
different one. Meanwhile, he faced expectations for schools and health care and
other government services -- all requiring income from taxes -- income more
likely to come from commercial farms than subsistence ones. Despite international
support and financial help, land reform has only inched along in Zimbabwe. Fewer
than 5,000 white farmers still own 70 percent of the most productive land.
The recent elections have confirmed Zimbabwe's place in the outer
circle of nations. Discredited by vote rigging and violence (48 people have been
reported killed since the start of this year), the elections have further
isolated Mugabe: The Commonwealth, an organization of 54 nations, has suspended
Zimbabwe from its meetings for a year, Switzerland has frozen Zimbabwean
officials' financial assets, and Denmark has closed its embassy and cut off the
flow of development funds.
Acting through mobs and brigades controlled by his political party,
Mugabe has unleashed a wave of terror meant to stamp out the opposition group,
the Movement for Democratic Change. Activists have been tortured and raped, their
homes burned. They have fled by the thousands. Food supplies have been cut off to
villages identified with the opposition. Hundreds have been arrested. The
international press has reported four deaths since the election. Attempting to
make good on Mugabe's election promise to turn over white farmers' land to black
Zimbabweans, bands of squatters and vigilantes, some of them war veterans, have
laid siege to farms.
The United States has condemned the arrest of Mugabe's election opponent,
Morgan Tsvangirai. But some African leaders have congratulated Mugabe on his
victory -- among them Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, who, like Mugabe, has
used patronage and intimidation to hold onto power. Representatives from
neighboring Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of
the Congo -- practicing realpolitik -- attended Mugabe's inauguration. The South
African Development Community and the Organization of African Unity have
pronounced the election fair. Even Africans who disapprove of Mugabe resent
criticism from the West, with its own sorry record of pillage and oppression in
Yet leaders of the countries that surround his cannot help but worry. This
part of Africa has already undergone terrible trauma since independence: Idi
Amin's massacres in Uganda, genocide in Rwanda, and armed conflict in the Congo,
where Mugabe sent troops to deflect attention from his own failures at home. Will
Mugabe's ruthless rule in Zimbabwe lead to greater violence in his own country
and further destabilization of an already unstable region?
If there is reason for hope, it may lie less in pressure from the outside
world than in the determination of Zimbabweans themselves to unseat Mugabe and
create a saner political order. All along -- as Meredith makes clear -- amidst
the corruption and fear, there have been elements of integrity in Zimbabwe. In
the courts, black and white judges have struggled mightily to uphold the rule of
law. Independent journalists have countered the propaganda of the government
press. Labor unions have led the recent effort to defeat Mugabe at the ballot
box. Despite the current terror, Mugabe's opposition has staged strikes and
demonstrations, calling for a new constitution. But organizing is difficult:
Under the Public Order and Security Act, police must approve any political
meeting of more than three people. Several hundred arrests have already been
made under the act. Journalists reporting these developments have themselves been
arrested. Yet, as elsewhere in Africa where postcolonial dictators have run
roughshod over their people, Zimbabweans have clung tenaciously to the notion
that despite enormous obstacles, Africa can do better.
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