JUST when everyone thought President Mugabe was beginning to be pragmatic in seeking to build bridges with the international community, he has dusted off h
is manuals on how best to cow Zimbabweans.
Quite how Mugabe managed to attract unwelcome international attention by turning what was initially an apologetic explanation of police brutality into a condemnation of the victims in such a short space of time could set its own record in double-speak.
That recent feat dredged up his inherent violent streak again. His remarks absolving the police for their brutal assault on trade unionists attempting to stage a street parade on September 13 has not endeared him even with his colleagues.
And few doubt his penchant for the adage: “What you cannot get by persuasion and reason, use force,” popularised by Adolf Hitler.
Yet, Mugabe had the benefit of plum guidance from a struggle icon, South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu who advised him that it takes very different skills to direct a guerilla war and to manage a national economy or pluralist democracy in the globalised 21st century.
Since Mugabe began retailing incredible conspiracy theories about opponents wanting to oust him, a strange desire to maintain his grip on power has transformed him from a coy but shrewd politician into a crude despot.
Unlike other leaders of his ilk who never advertise their unstatesmanlike callousness, Mugabe has never been slow in unsheathing his sword from its scabbard. He appears to relish the bad boy image.
Almost two decades after an estimated 20 000 civilians in Matabeleland lost life and limb for “supporting dissidents”, the target switched to supporters of opposition parties and civic groups seeking an overdue change.
Through inflammatory speeches, Mugabe has whipped up his party supporters’ emotions in a brand of amoral belligerence that is only possible from a person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.
“We have men and women ready to pull the trigger,” Mugabe said in praise of the army during Defence Forces Day commemorations in Harare on August 16. The warning came as the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions was planning to stage street parades to hand over a petition.
Using fiery rhetoric to arouse nationalist sentiments has become Mugabe’s trademark.
For instance, in February1982 while in Marondera, Mugabe accused the late Joshua Nkomo of buying more than 25 farms and 30 business enterprises throughout the country as havens for concealing weapons to start another war against his leadership.
“Nkomo is trying to overthrow the government,” Mugabe said.
“Zapu and its leader, Dr Joshua Nkomo, are like a cobra in a house. The only way to deal effectively with a snake is to strike and destroy its head.”
What followed was a brutal campaign against innocent civilians in both Matabeleland and the Midlands.
Zimbabweans cringed when in 1998 President Mugabe threatened: “We have degrees in violence.”
An independent observer remarked that the university of violence “only leaves scars that dehumanise and debase” in response to the threat.
In an open letter to President Mugabe that same year, Amnesty International (AI) reminded him of the guarantees of freedom of expression in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
AI said in the letter: “There appears to be a climate of fear developing, created by violence, harassment and intimidation which is hindering the free expression of political opinions and undermining the possibility of free and fair elections. Amnesty International is concerned that this climate of fear is preventing all but the most courageous citizens of Zimbabwe from freely expressing themselves.”
But Mugabe has paid no heed, particularly when the advice runs against the grain of his growing victim mentality or threatens his privileged ruling party.
At one time Mugabe urged his supporters to unite against whites and strike fear into their hearts while opening a crucial party congress at the Harare Sports Centre.
“Our party must continue to strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy,” Mugabe told about 7 000 of his party adherents, urging them to continue their violent takeover of white-owned commercial farms at the start of what became known at the Third Chimurenga and Zimbabwe’s accelerated descent into chaos and hunger.
That phase opened a second installment of violence after the Gukurahundi atrocities.
“The violence carried out will not only destroy any remnants of democratic freedom we have painstakingly built, but violates almost every right of the human family, ultimately eroding our dignity and almost ensures a future of misery and bankruptcy,” remarked an observer, Chaz Maviyane-Davies.
For a party leader who had exhorted his supporters to “uproot the stumps” in reference to the opposition MDC, Mugabe has not disappointed in coming up with new ideas to inflict pain on his perceived enemies. In May last year, government launched Operation Murambatsvina, in which soldiers, police and government militias used extreme violence to destroy the homes of hundreds of thousands of poor Zimbabweans throughout the country’s towns and cities.
Mugabe presented the blitz on the urban poor as a renewal scheme to “clean up” urban slums but it later emerged that this was in fact a preemptive strike against a feared uprising by urban dwellers long traumatised by poverty and economic decline.
Mugabe has often abused the police and the army to carry out brutal attacks on the opposition.
In the latest saga that drew worldwide condemnation, police attacked trade union leaders and other activists in the back of Land Rovers and in police holding cells. Their only offence was to try to petition government to ameliorate the conditions facing the majority of the population reeling under severe economic hardships.
This episode, carried widely in the world media, will only have confirmed the regime’s reputation for violent suppression of opposing views. It was by any account an own goal coming as it did as government is planning to set up a human rights commission.