IN 1981, only a year into power, President Robert Mugabe — who turned 89 yesterday — declared his political creed: “The concept of setting up a party merely to oppose and not to assist the government in being to govern on a national basis is repugnant to me.”
Column by Mthulisi Mathuthu
He said this to a clearly stunned Thames TV’s Julian Manyon.
“Not that I am anti -democratic principles, but rather that I cherish the principle of national unity.”
To leave no illusion as to what he actually meant Mugabe went further: “My view is that it is a luxury to indulge in politics of opposition.”
After that the stage was set for Mugabe’s rule and what it would entail. As Mugabe turns 89, it is important to retrace how Zimbabwe under his rule got to where it is today.
There is a tendency for some, those who suffer from selective amnesia, to be surprised about what Mugabe is doing, claiming he has changed when he has been consistent in his aversion for opposition and democracy.
To implement his one-party state doctrine — which was in Zanu PF’s 1980 elections manifesto — Mugabe straight away devised a deceitful strategy to consolidate and maintain power after his ascendancy through violence and intimidation even at the height of his popularity.
He reinforced his pseudo-reconciliation policy — which ironically came at a time when he was stoking political fires and pursuing vengeance against Joshua Nkomo and Zapu.
Imbued with a sense of invincibility, he revived the war-time terror machinery to wage what former Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay referred to as a “purported anti-dissident war” and yet it was, in essence, a crackdown characterised by fierce repression and systematic massacres to achieve a one-party state, dictatorial control.
Mugabe did not seek just a one-party state, but a totalitarian system in which his will would prevail and in which he would be the sole purveyor of both goodwill and fate.
After a vicious campaign of brutality, he secured a quasi one-party state instead through the 1987 Unity Accord which marked the demise of Zapu and advent of the imperial executive presidency which lies at the heart of Zimbabwe’s problems.
After becoming executive president in 1989 following a transition from the premiership to the new arrangement, he became somewhat of a demigod, with new overwhelming powers to fortify and defend his fledgling authoritarianism.
Although his de jure one-party state agenda was dead in the water by 1987 as Zapu’s demise was followed by Zum’s rise, Mugabe still yearned for a de facto one-party state and thus sought to crash any opposition in whatever form it manifested itself.
When the MDC emerged in 1999, Mugabe upped the ante and went back to his repression manual of the 1980s. The MDC, civil society groups, human rights activists, farmers, judges, lawyers, diplomats, and journalists, among other dissenters, were targeted. In fact, everybody who was opposed or critical of Mugabe and his party came under fire.
As he celebrated his birthday yesterday, nothing seems to have changed despite a veneer of peace and stability following the formation of the coalition government in 2009.
At 89, Mugabe still looks as fit as a middle-aged man. He remains guided by the same creed — a conviction that the opposition is unnecessary unless it serves his political agenda and interests.
Strangely, as he moves into the twilight zone of his long political career, Mugabe remains the same: instinctively authoritarian and rigid despite sporting all sorts of masks.
He was like this in 1980 when he took power aged 56 and he still is like that 33 years later as he turned 89 yesterday. As they say, old habits die hard.
Apart from being instinctively authoritarian and rigid — for Mugabe does not tolerate a diversity of views unless they help to reinforce his dogmas — he also has a skewed definition of democracy, which is why he would publicly say with a straight face “my view is that it is a luxury to indulge in politics of opposition”.
Besides, his concept of national development stands athwart to conventional development. In his world, competition is alien; ideas can only come from the top, hardly from the bottom. It is no surprise then that human rights activism and opposition politics remain risky business in Zimbabwe.
Free speech, including jokes and name-calling Mugabe, is punishable by arrest or jail terms. So omnipresent is Mugabe and his antiquated thinking, which still has some threadbare purchase on the brainwashed, that he is almost the climate in Zimbabwe.
His birthday, as captured by the so-called 21st February Movement — a shadowy organisation comprising a hotchpotch of gullible youths and praise-singers who assemble annually to eulogise the “Dear Leader”, is treated like a national event.
Of course parallels abound, with North Korea providing the best example and inspiration for Mugabe. That is why he lifted their idea of getting followers to praise him to the skies and treating him like a demigod.
That is also why he hired North Korean slaughterers to massacre his own fellow citizens in the 1980s for merely refusing to vote for him as they held different views and supported a different political party.
The now discredited claim that government security forces moved into the south-western region to suppress dissidents and killed civilians as collateral damage, no longer sells. Even the gullible Mugabe brigade has now come to accept that civilians were massacred for parochial political agendas — the hatred of opposition and one-party state ambition. The only serious question now is whether that was genocide or not? Quite clearly, it was but that’s debate for another day.
Overall, Mugabe’s best moments are when he has had to pursue opponents with vengeance. Essentially, his has always been government by vendetta to which he still is consistently committed even as he turns 89.
It is this consistence which many confuse for principle. In essence, he is a political dinosaur battling the tides of history and inevitable change.
Mathuthu is a freelance Zimbabwean journalist based in London. He previously worked for the Chronicle, closed Mirror Newspapers Group and Zimbabwe Independent.