BSR: Robert Mugabe at 93 – The Art of Power


Zimbabwe’s long serving leader, President Robert Mugabe turns 93 next week. He has been in power for 37 years, having assumed leadership in 1980, when the Southern African country got independence from Britain. By then he had already served two decades in the political trenches. As he celebrates his 93rd birthday, he has spent about 60 years in active politics, more than half of them as the leader. He has been at the helm of ZANU PF for 40 years. Next year, Zimbabwe holds national elections. He will be 94 and he plans to run again. His party, ZANU PF has already confirmed him as its presidential candidate. Should he win that election and serve the full term he would be 99 by the end of it, just one year short of a century. He would probably set the record for the longest serving President, one that would probably never be beaten in the modern era.

His record in power has been both remarkable and disastrous. Few political figures divide opinion as Mugabe does – he has a loyal fan base that holds him in high esteem and an equally critical constituency that holds him as the ultimate villain. Once a beacon of hope when he gained power in 1980, Zimbabwe has fallen down the pecking order in dramatic fashion under Mugabe’s charge. It now stands in the lower echelons, regarded as one of the poorest countries in the world. It holds the world record for the first hyperinflation of the 21st century. It was forced to abandon its currency in 2009. The economy is in terminal decline. Large numbers of young Zimbabweans have departed in search of greener pastures. Neighbours like Botswana which were miles behind in 1980, have since overtaken Zimbabwe in terms of development and promise.

Yet, despite the myriad of problems burdening the country, Mugabe continues to reign with relative ease and comfort. He is so relaxed that he can afford to take a month-long family holiday away in the Far East, while the country burns. Zimbabweans joke that he occasionally pays visits to the country since he spends a lot of time on foreign trips. His counterparts who have served for lengthy periods, like President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola, are not as adventurous. Dos Santos often sends ministers to represent him at regional summits of SADC and the AU, while Mugabe is ever present, however minor the occasion might be. The difference probably is that Mugabe has nothing to worry about in his backyard.

How though, in light of the deep challenges that Zimbabwe has been facing over the years, has Mugabe managed to retain power for so long – carving up a status as the ultimate political survivor? why is he so comfortable and relaxed in the midst of the inferno engulfing his country? How has one man held so much power over a country for so long and against so many odds? Much has been said and written about Mugabe’s brand of politics, how he came to power and how he has kept power. There have also been premature and false pronouncements of his demise.

The purpose of this article is to look at Mugabe’s lengthy reign from a strategic point of  view. What strategies has Mugabe employed in order to stay in power for so long? This is no mean exercise, given the length of his career and the complexity of politics under his watch. This is a modest effort that summarises the major strategies that have characterised Mugabe’s rule. In writing this, I have drawn from various works on strategy but I focus more on Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and the more modern work of Robert Greene, whose popular work on strategies of war and laws of power also draws on ancient strategists and philosophers. It will become apparent that Mugabe employs an eclectic mix of strategies and it might be said he is a faithful student of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu.


According to Sun Tzu, “all warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” War is a constant feature in the conduct of human affairs. When most people hear the word “war”, they think of guns, fighting and killing. But the conduct of human affairs is based on the same principles underlying the conduct of war and therefore the strategies of war apply to various aspects of life. Even in religion, there is war – between good and evil, between God and Satan, between love and hate, and so on.

“Pretend to be weak,” adds Sun Tzu, “that [the enemy] may grow arrogant.” Feign weakness when in fact you are strong. To this, Greene adds his Law 3 of Power, “Keep people off-balance and in the dark by never revealing the purpose behind your actions. If they have no clue what you are up to, they cannot prepare a defence. Guide them far enough down the wrong path, envelope them in enough smoke, and by the time they realize your intentions, it will be too late.” Sun Tzu adds, “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt”. Machiavelli also advises on the strategy of deception, but more on that later.

It seems this law is made for and by Mugabe himself. He is notoriously secretive and does not give away much. This means those around him are constantly in the dark. They have no clue what he would be thinking at any given time. During the Inclusive Government, up until he issued regulations proclaiming election date and electoral law amendments in June 2013, his partners in government had no idea what he was thinking, even though he used to meet his fellow principals each week. Sometimes, ZANU PF Ministers would approach Morgan Tsvangirai, the Prime Minister, to find out what their own boss was thinking on particular issues.

The strategy of deception meant Mugabe could say one thing, while doing the very opposite. This is not only against external opponents, but also within his own party. Right now, none of them is any wiser about his succession plans. They probably cannot even get meetings with him. This secrecy is consistent with Greene’s Law 17 of Power, “Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability”. If you are predictable, others will be comfortable. Greene recommends that you must be “deliberately unpredictable” as this keeps others off-balance. “Taken to an extreme,” says Greene, “this strategy can intimidate and terrorize”. Thus, Zimbabweans think they are terrorised by his leadership, but his own colleagues in government and the party are in worse position as they have immediate interests but are kept in the dark.

The fox and the lion

In keeping with the theme of deception, which Mugabe uses to great effect, according to Machiavelli, while it is commendable for a ruler to keep his promises and to live an upright life, great rulers are those who are cunningly deceptive.  In his advice to The Prince, Machiavelli wrote, “a prudent ruler cannot keep his word, nor should he, when such fidelity would damage him. And when the reasons that made him promise are no longer relevant.” In his view, this advice would be irrelevant if all people were upright. However, “because they are treacherous and would not keep their promises to you, you should not consider yourself bound to keep your promises to them”.  One can either use law or force but since law is often ineffective, one must have recourse to force.

In this regard, Machiavelli advises that a ruler must imitate beasts, which are accustomed to the use of force, while making use of law only in appropriate circumstances. He recommends that a ruler must be both human and beast in nature as one is ineffective without the other. Acting like a beast means a ruler must imitate both the fox and the lion, both of which have different but effective qualities. Lions have immense power but they can be easily trapped while foxes do not have the power but they are more deceptive and therefore harder to trap. Therefore, according to Machiavelli, “one needs to be a fox to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten away wolves. Those who rely merely upon a lion’s strength do not understand matters.”

Mugabe is very adept at this Machiavellian game of imitating the fox and the lion. As we have already seen, he uses the strategy of deception very well. But he also has a violent streak and has no hesitation to use extreme force to devour his enemies, just like the lion. Machiavelli says deceptions are effective because people are generally naïve by nature. “Men are so naïve and so much dominated by immediate needs, that a skilful deceiver always finds plenty of people who will let themselves be deceived.” This is why a leader can say one thing while doing the opposite. In 1980, Mugabe preached reconciliation and while he was showered with praises around the world for all the good talk, Operation Gukurahundi was going on in Matebeleland and the Midlands, leaving thousands dead, maimed and displaced. Before the 2013 elections, Mugabe was probably the foremost exponent of peace and non-violence, but his troops were wreaking havoc in the rural areas, reminding people of the violence they could inflict.

His political career has been characterised by a complex interplay between law and force. A lawyer by training, Mugabe likes to be seen to be playing by the rulebook, but he makes sure the rulebook is written in his favour. He will even make retrospective legislation to legalise past misdeeds. In this way, he gives a side that is devoted to the law, but really, it is not rule of law as it is often understood in the substantive sense. It is rule by law, in which the law is used to legitimise otherwise arbitrary and authoritarian acts.

However, he is also very comfortable with the use of extreme force. He takes pride in it, at one point claiming to possess “degrees in violence”. Gukurahundi, Operation Murambatsvina, the 2008 election violence, the brutal removal of diamond panners in Chiadzwa in 2007, the violent suppression of citizens’ movement in 2016 all evidence a man who has no hesitation when it comes to using force. He inherited a brutal security system from the colonial state but instead of dismantling it at independence, he kept it intact and over the course of time strengthened it.

Using former enemies

According to Greene, “hire a former enemy and he will be more loyal than a friend, because he has more to prove. In fact, you have more to fear from friends than from enemies. If you have no enemies, find a way to make them.” The idea is to convert former opponents and use them to further your interests.

Mugabe has mastered this rule exceptionally well. He has the knack of turning former critics into his most loyal and ardent defenders. For most observers, names like Professor Jonathan Moyo, Psychology Maziwisa, Gabriel Chaibva, Qhubani Moyo easily come to mind. All have at one point or another been vicious critics of Mugabe. Professor Moyo was part of a generation of young academics that courageously resisted Mugabe’s plan to establish a one party state in the late 1980s. He became a well-known critic of the Mugabe regime in the 1990s, writing popular columns in private newspapers. However, after 2000, he became perhaps the most vocal defender of Mugabe at a time when he launched the controversial land reform programme and resisted the charge of the MDC which had mounted the strongest political challenge that Mugabe had ever faced. They fell out in 2004, but by 2008, Mugabe had re-hired Moyo again, even though he had returned to his critical self in the intervening years. For Mugabe, it was better to have the political scientist inside than outside.

Gabriel Chaibva and Qhubani Moyo were in the MDC, the latter as recently as 2013 before he changed sides and began to defend ZANU PF. He now holds a radio licence and is an electoral commissioner. Maziwisa was another virulent critique of the regime before his somersault and has been one of the most ardent defenders of the regime. During the GNU, Mugabe managed to charm his former foes to the point that they began to speak highly of him much to the confusion of their supporters. Tsvangirai, Tendai Biti and Nelson Chamisa, all leading figures in the MDC, were quoted on various occasions praising Mugabe’s leadership. MDC ministers routinely invited Mugabe to officiate at their official events, instead of giving the platform to their principals Tsvangirai, Mutambara or Ncube, which would have given them more political capital.

In the ZANU PF succession wars, Mugabe uses the most ambitious as instruments against competitors. In 2004, he thwarted Mnangagwa’s ambitions by favouring Joice Mujuru. Ten years later, he discarded Mujuru by aligning with Mnangagwa. Back in the war years, Police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri spent the final years of the struggle deep in the dungeons with so-called traitors. In the early 1990s, Mugabe appointed him as the head of police, a position he has held since then. Needless to say, Chihuri has served Mugabe extremely well.

Cruelty over generosity – it’s better to be feared than loved

According to Machiavelli, “a ruler who wishes to maintain his power must be prepared to act immorally when this becomes necessary”. He adds, “one should not be troubled about becoming notorious for those vices without which it is difficult to preserve one’s power., because if one considers everything carefully, doing some things that seem virtuous may result in one’s ruin, whereas doing other things that seem vicious may strengthen one’s position and cause one to flourish”. This advice essentially sanitises wicked acts. “It must be understood that a ruler, especially a new ruler, cannot always act in ways that are considered good because, in order to maintain his power, he is often forced to act treacherously, ruthlessly or inhumanely and disregard the precepts of religion.” In Machiavelli’s world, entering the path of wrongdoing when it becomes necessary is justified.

Looking at Mugabe’s 37 years in power, there have been some gross acts of wrongdoing and cruelty, the most egregious of which is Gukurahundi in the 1980s. In 2005, Operation Murambatsvina in which homes were destroyed was carried out under his watch. In 2008, hundreds lost their lives, limbs, homes and livelihoods due to political violence designed to help Mugabe cling on to power. Without the vile campaign of 2008, Mugabe would probably have lost power. Diamond panners in Chiadzwa were brutally massacred in 2007. Machiavelli would find justification for these inhumane acts. He wrote, “Therefore, if a ruler can keep his subjects united and loyal, he should not worry about incurring a reputation for cruelty, for by punishing a very few he will really be more merciful than those who over-indulgently permit disorders to develop, with resultant killings and plunderings. For the latter usually harm a whole community, whereas executions ordered by a ruler harm only specific indivuduals. And a new ruler, in particular, cannot avoid being considered harsh, since new states are full of dangers”.

According to Machiavelli, while a ruler should want to be considered merciful than cruel, he must be careful that he is not merciful in an inappropriate way. According to this reasoning one might have to be cruel in order to be kind. He argues that it might be better to be cruel to preserve peace and order than acting in a way that might appear merciful but actually results in disorder and chaos.

While Mugabe wants to be loved, he revels in the fear that he instils in the populace. The average Zimbabwean lives in perpetual fear of the regime. In the rural areas fear abounds particularly during election periods. Yes, there are people who love him, but there are more people who fear offending him. Ordinary people are routinely arrested and jailed for allegedly “insulting” him. Those who protest against him are accused of undermining his authority. This pervasive fear is consistent with Machiavelli’s prescription.

“A controversy has arisen about this: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or vice versa,” writes Machiavelli. “My view is that it desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.” Mugabe probably prefers to be both loved and feared, but if he had to choose between the two, he would sacrifice being loved. Fear is probably the major instrument that has sustained his rule particularly among rural population, where the majority of voters are located.

Divide and rule

According to Sun Tzu, “if [the enemy’s] forces are united, separate them”. This is the core of the divide and rule strategy. Greene writes, “By separating the parts, sowing dissension and division from with , you can weaken and bring down even the most formidable foe. In setting up your attack, work on their minds to create internal conflict … division is weakness, and the joints are the weakest part of any structure. When you are facing troubles or enemies, turn a large problem into small, eminently defeatable parts.” This is often combined with the strategy of defeating from within, which involves infiltrating the enemy.

Throughout his career, Mugabe has been faithful to this strategy both against external and internal enemies. No political party formed after independence has survived infiltration. Indeed, no political party has survived without going through an internecine conflict and a split. From Tekere’s Zimbabwe Unity Movement, through to the Forum Party, the MDC and most recently, Zim PF, they have all succumbed to splits. At the centre of most of these splits are infiltrators or political actors who come under the influence of Mugabe’s party. The result is that the opposition is usually divided into small parts, which are easier to defeat than a united opposition. One of the great forces against an opposition coalition is infiltration by elements who will engineer divisions or derail progress just when unity is about to be achieved.

However, to survive against external forces, one has to secure his position against internal forces first. Hence, Mugabe is a supreme master of the divide and rule strategy within his own party. It is one of the primary methods by which he has managed to maintain his rule. According to Greene, factions within organisations are an inevitable phenomenon since people gravitate to small groups based on mutual self-interest. However, if left to their own devices, these factions can be a threat to the organisation since they will try to further their own interests rather than those of the organisation. The solution, according to Greene, is to divide to rule. “To do so you must first establish yourself as the centre of power; individuals need to know they need to compete for your approval. There has to be more to be gained by pleasing the leader than by trying to form a power base within the group”.

Followers of Zimbabwean politics know too well how Mugabe has established himself as the One Centre of Power in ZANU PF, a principle which has been rammed into the party faithful for some time but has been repeated more often in recent years where the problem of factionalism has increased. A notable feature is how virtually everyone in ZANU PF tries very hard to grovel before Mugabe, doing their utmost to please him. Even as they were being fired, Mujuru and allies continued to shower praises upon Mugabe. For many years, Mugabe has successfully played one faction against the other. The moment one faction appears to be in a dominant position, he brings it down by elevating the other. That way, the factions are always competing to please him and they are never sure what he is thinking. As they fight each other, he is safe. In this regard, Mugabe is the ultimate puppet-master. Through divide and rule, Mugabe has managed to insulate himself against factions; they do the fighting for him.

Destroy from within

Instead of hitting against a wall, it might be better to undermine it by digging underneath and letting it fall on its own weight. According to Greene destroying from within involves infiltration of the enemy camp. Once inside, they provide intelligence on the weaknesses of the enemy. “They will silently and subtly sabotage him. They will spread internal dissension and division,” says Greene.

Advising on the use of spies, Sun Tzu says, “Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men. Hence the use of spies” There must be intimate relationship with spies and they should be “more liberally rewarded”. Sun Tzu refers to them as the sovereign’s most precious faculty. Sun Tzu encourages leaders to be benevolent and subtle, maintaining the utmost secrecy. “The end and aim of spying in all its five varieties is knowledge of the enemy; and this knowledge can only be derived, in the first instance, from the converted spy. Hence it is essential that the converted spy be treated with the utmost liberality.” Converted spies are those who would have come to spy for the enemy.

Mugabe has maintained a strong and sophisticated spying system. It is probably his strongest asset in his armoury of maintaining power. In the intelligence system, Mugabe has an instrument that keeps him aware and on top of everything around him. There are spies who spy, then there are spies who spy on spies. It’s a complex system in which he is the central actor. With an unchecked and unaudited budget, the spies are liberally treated, in line with Sun Tzu’s prescriptions.

This is the core of the system – which permeates all layers of society, all institutions – public and private and virtually all corners of society. The opposition parties and civil society and private companies are all infiltrated by the system. This infiltration and destruction from within is a core element of the divide and rule strategy. Even if Mugabe does not know, the Panopticon Effect that has been created means everyone is always fearful that he or she is being watched. This gets people to behave accordingly and to self-regulate, all of which benefits the man at the centre – Robert Mugabe.

Share the spoils with lieutenants

According to Sun Tzu, “When you plunder a countryside, let the spoil be divided amongst your men; when you capture new territory, cut it up into allotments for the benefit of the soldiery.” The essence of this strategy of war is that a leader must ensure that his lieutenants have a stake in the pursuit and maintenance of power. It gives them a sense of reward and ownership. Not only will they be grateful, but they will have good reason to defend the loot. Machiavelli says if a ruler wants to be generous, he must use what belongs to others. “You can be much more generous with what does not belong to you or your subjects,” says Machiavelli “This is because giving away what belongs to others in no way damages your reputation, rather it enhances it.”

Mugabe has never stopped his top lieutenants from looting from the state. Egregious acts of corruption abound but there has never been any serious appetite for corruption. Mugabe might occasionally say some words on the vice of corruption, but ultimately he does nothing at all. In this way, Mugabe is able to keep his top lieutenants on the leash. Not only are they grateful, they feel beholden to him and are motivated to defend him for self-interest. When alluvial diamonds were discovered in Chiadzwa, top political elites, including military generals got a share of the cake. When Zimbabwe went to war in the DRC under the auspices of defending the nation’s sovereignty, the spoils of war were shared among the top political and military elites. A survey of all boards of state institutions and state-owned companies demonstrates that they are occupied by former senior personnel from the security services.

The result is that there is a huge cabal whose wealth and livelihoods are tied to Mugabe’s rule. The longer Mugabe remains in power, the better it is for them. Thus they have no interest in seeing Mugabe leave power. Mugabe ensured their loyalty is measured in wealth which translates to a solid defence of his rule. This is why in 2008, the security services ensured that Mugabe retained control despite his loss to Tsvangirai. As for regular troops, they may not get the large spoils that they bosses earn, but Mugabe maintains a system which ensures that they are given preferential treatment compared to other civil servants. This is why traditionally they have been the first in the queue for wages and benefits. Even when the government has struggled to meet its wage obligations in recent years, the soldiers have always received favourable treatment. This gesture is fundamental, for it plays on the minds of the soldiers, making them feel and believe that they are more special than the rest of government workers.

Surround yourself with yes men

There is a good reason why Mugabe has retained ministers since they were appointed to government in 1980 and hardly fires incompetent or corrupt ministers. He knows that if he is loyal to his people, they will also be loyal to him. Indeed, most of them have known no other life except as Ministers of government. They would not survive outside government. This is why Mugabe acquired broad powers to appoint lieutenants in the party and in all branches of the state. This is also why there is an unnecessary clamour to amend the constitution in order to give Mugabe broad powers to appoint the Chief Justice, without an strong checks and balances. Having powers to appoint means the leader is surrounded with persons who are beholden to him and often serve at his pleasure.

Machiavelli says choosing ministers is an important task for the ruler who must be shrewd in performing this exercise. The intelligence of a ruler can be seen by the quality of men around him, says Machiavelli. A shrewd ruler chooses capable and loyal men while a weak one will often have incapable and disloyal ministers around him.

However, Mugabe is not known for his ability to choose capable ministers. Indeed, most of them have been thoroughly incapable going by the dismal results of his government since 1980. But they have been extremely loyal. They do try to further their interests, through acts of corruption, but Mugabe has faithfully followed Machiavelli’s advice that “in order to ensure the minister’s fidelity, the ruler should look after him, by honouring him, enriching him, attaching him to himself, conferring honours and offices on him; in short, treating the minister so that he will realise that he depends upon the ruler … and his many offices will make him fear change.”

Mugabe has cultivated a relationship with his Ministers which means whatever their personal interests, they are always loyal to him or strive to be seen to be loyal. Only once did a Minister leave government of his own volition because he disagreed with Mugabe and the manner in which he ran his government – that was in 2000, when Dr Nkosana Moyo resigned. Mugabe has made sure to surround himself with loyalists who will never question his rule or his policies.

Be headstrong and shrewd

Those who know him say Mugabe is stubborn and a loner. An old relative, James Chikerema, who is now late, once described how stubborn he was in their boyhood years. In one anecdote, he described how a young Robert Mugabe would drive away his grandfather’s cattle from the communal herd whenever he did not get his way with the other herdboys. This behaviour would be mirrored in his old age, when Mugabe drove away Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth after the country was suspended in the early 2000s. In 2013, after some pressing by SADC, Mugabe threatened to leave the regional grouping.

He is not a character who takes advice and tends to trust his own instincts. Mugabe’s approach is very Machiavellian. According to Machiavelli, a ruler should only have advice when he wants it, not when others want to give it. Apparently, unsolicited advice should be discouraged. “He should be ready to seek information and opinions and to listen patiently to candid views about matters that he raises,” says Machiavelli. Insiders say during party meetings and in cabinet Mugabe often listens quietly as his lieutenants battle it out between themselves. He tends to be economic with words, keeping much of his thoughts to himself.  This way he keeps everyone in suspense, not knowing what he will be thinking or whether he will follow their advice. In the end, he does what he wants or leaves them with little option but to do his bidding. But crucially, he would have made them feel useful – like they made a contribution and that it was all democratic. Oft-times he gives them a choice without a choice at all, such as when he is “elected” as President of ZANU PF at every party congress or is reaffirmed as the presidential candidate at every party conference. It is a choice without a choice because by the time they get there, he will be the only candidate anyway. It will be a choice between himself and no one else.

Centralise power

Mugabe would not have retained control of the party and the state without centralisation of power. This he set out to achieve soon after independence. Back in 1984, at ZANU PF’s first congress after independence, Mugabe made sure he got all the powers to appoint members of his party’s Politburo, the executive body. Leaving it to elections would have taken away control from his hands. Later, he also got the power to appoint the Vice Presidents, giving him even more power. This was important because it ensured that he could control those who worked with him in the executive committee. If such members are elected, it might be democratic, but it means each member is accountable to the electorate and not to the leader. Each leader has his or her own power base, which can pose a threat to the leader. Getting the authority to appoint members of the Politburo took away power from the electorate and made all appointees beholden to the appointer. The appointees serve at Mugabe’s pleasure. Their power depends on their loyalty to him, which makes his position secure.

The changes at party level in 1984 were augmented by the constitutional reforms at the national level, beginning with Constitutional Amendment No. 7 of 1987, which gave him the Executive Presidency. The elimination of PF ZAPU as an opposition under the Unity Accord also in 1987 completed the process of consolidating and centralising power. Without a powerful opposition and with an untrammelled Executive Presidency, Mugabe made himself a true centre of power, which was difficult to dislodge. There was a conflation between the state and the party which gave Mugabe immense power.

Find their weaknesses and make them beholden to you

Law 33 of Greene’s Laws of Power is that a leader must “discover each man’s thumbscrew”. In other words, the leader must know the weakness in each of those around him and his enemies. “That weakness is usually an insecurity, an uncontrollable emotion or need; it can also be a small secret pleasure,” says Greene. A leader can turn this weakness in his enemy to his advantage.

Mugabe has a reputation of keeping a file for each government minister or senior regime official. He lets his ministers and senior officials engage in acts of corruption, which makes them highly compromised. If they dare to challenge him or leave government, he uses that information against them. This is a powerful weapon which keeps in line his ministers who might turn rogue. The threat of prosecution are enough to keep them in line.

During the Inclusive Government era, Mugabe turned his nemesis’ weakness for women to his advantage. Mugabe himself was not innocent of similar transgressions during his marriage to his first wife Sally but he managed to turn Tsvangirai’s indiscretions to his advantage.

Build a personality cult

Mugabe has managed to transform himself in a demi-god among his supporters. This is augmented by Law 16 in Greene’s book, which is that a leader must make himself scarce in order to raise value. “Too much circulation makes the price go down: The more you are seen and heard from, the more common you appear,” says Greene. He advises that a leader must be scarce so that people talk about him. “Create value through scarcity,” he writes, adding that this might even raise levels of admiration.

For all his faults, Mugabe has built a cult following, with a critical mass of diehard supporters who will do anything for him. This is consistent with Greene’s Law number 27, namely, “Play on people’s need to believe to create a cult-like following”. According to Greene, “People have an overwhelming desire to believe in something. Become the focal point of such desire by offering them a cause, a new faith to follow. Keep your words vague but full of promise; emphasize enthusiasm over rationality and clear thinking.” This is more evident in religious circles, where religious leaders have managed to build such a cult following.

In politics, this is also evident and Mugabe is a foremost figure with a cult following not only in Zimbabwe but across the African continent. When he visits other African countries he receives more cheers than he gets in Zimbabwe. When he talks eloquently about Pan-African ideals and defence against imperialism, he gives many across the continent a cause to believe in. They identify with the issues that he raises regarding power imbalances in the world which leave Africans in the margins.

“Give your new disciples rituals to perform, ask them to make sacrifices on your behalf,” says Greene. Movements like the 21st February Movement, which celebrate his birthday annually are designed to augment this cult status. Each time he travels in and out of the country, all his ministers and military generals congregate at the airport to see him off or to welcome him home. More frequently in recent years, even when he is returning from a medical trip overseas, hundreds of supporters are commandeered to attend at the airport, singing and dancing for him. These rituals are designed to deify him. Ministers speak of him in god-like terms, some referring to him as the second son of God, after Jesus Christ. Some religious leaders proclaim that Mugabe was always destined to be the leader from an early age, others suggest that he is destined to rule forever. All this deification has placed Mugabe in an untouchable position.

False surrender to disarm victim

This is a subset of the broad strategy of deception. Law 22 in Greene’s Laws of Power is that a leader must use the surrender tactic and transform weakness into power. According to Greene, when you are weaker, it is not advisable to fight for the sake of honour. It is better to surrender instead. This is consistent with Sun Tzu’s advice, “It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the enemy’s one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two. If equally matched, we can offer battle; if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy; if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him.” Overall, the point is that far from being a weakness, fleeing is a useful strategy. It allows one time to recover and regroup. According to Greene, it allows for “time to torment and irritate your conqueror, time to wait for his power to wane.”

Mugabe has used the fleeing or surrender strategy more than once but perhaps the most effective moment was during the tenure of the Inclusive Government between 2008 and 2013. After the 27 June 2008 presidential run-off election, Mugabe knew that he did not have legitimacy. The run-off election was a sham which no one recognised. He had won but it meant nothing. Mugabe went to the African Union Summit in Egypt soon after that election hoping to gain recognition from his peers but he was rebuffed. Although he is a stubborn and strong-headed character, Mugabe realised that he was in a weaker position and he was fighting a losing war. He succumbed to the proposal of negotiations and eventually signed the Global Political Agreement (GPA) which meant working with his nemesis, Morgan Tsvangirai as Prime Minister. The idea of sharing power was unpalatable but it was a strategic retreat. He fled from an unwinnable battle. By the time the next elections came in 2013, Mugabe had found time to recover, regroup and regain ground. While the MDC parties concentrated on governmental matters, Mugabe focused on regaining total power, which he did in 2013. To use Sun Tzu’s terms, Mugabe had chosen to flee from battle in 2008, instead of fighting an unwinnable battle.

Selective generosity

Greene Law 12 says that a ruler must be selective in his generosity in order to disarm the enemy. This is also a subset of the strategy of deception. Generosity if self-consuming, says Machiavelli, as the more generous you are, the less you will be able to sustain it. Therefore, the ruler need only be generous when it is necessary. According to Greene, “one sincere and honest move will cover over dozens of dishonest ones.” Therefore, the leader does not have to be generous all the time. The good thing about such acts of generosity is that they make recipients drop their guard even if they were suspicious. “Once your selective honesty opens a hole in their armour, you can deceive and manipulate them at will,” says Greene.

Mugabe has been very good at selective acts of generosity. Back in 1980, trying to assuage the fears of the white minority community, Mugabe extended the hand of reconciliation. His open-hearted show of generosity and magnanimity after his overwhelming victory pleasantly surprised most people. Even those that were suspicious of him began to view him in a different light. They dropped their guard and began to trust him. The reconciliatory Mugabe of 1980 was hardly recognisable in 2000.

Mugabe would use the same strategy again during the Inclusive Government between 2008 and 2013. He was quite generous towards his former adversaries, even praising them on occasions, to the point that they too reciprocated and showered him with praises. But they had dropped their guard, believing that Mugabe had reformed. In rural areas, people are violated and intimidated so that they live in perpetual fear but once in a while, Mugabe comes bearing gifts. Even in urban areas, after years of torment, Mugabe simply wiped off all municipal debts before the 2013 elections – that one act of selective generosity may have turned the hearts of voters. There will be more of these acts of selective generosity in 2017 and 2018, with the elections in mind. Unfortunately, people fall for them and have yet to see through the deception.

Within his own party, Mugabe uses selective generosity towards his lieutenants. Even when they break laws, he either does nothing or when they are found guilty he pardons them. Frederick Shava will always be loyal after he was found guilty of perjury in 1989 before Mugabe granted him a presidential pardon a day after he was sentenced to prison. He spent just one night in jail and now he is Zimbabwe’s top diplomat at the UN. Many who have been accused of corruption have been let off under his watch when they should face the law. Ministers like Josiah Hungwe are heading empty ministries but they are still happy to be in government. He has a Minister in each province who simply do his bidding.

Create a crisis, then solve it

This is also part of Mugabe’s deceptive strategy. When you are a leader, your stock rises when you solve problems. Problems are therefore not always unwelcome as they present an opportunity to demonstrate problem-solving skills. Indeed, if there are no problems, they can be deliberately created. The latter is preferable as one can create problems that he knows he can solve. Over the years, Mugabe has mastered the art of solving problems that he would have created. Oft-times, he gets others in his regime to cause problems, after which he emerges as the hero after seemingly solving the problems. He has done this on several occasions. A recent example was when Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa announced the suspension of public servants’ bonus payments in 2015. A few days later, after a public outcry, Mugabe reversed the suspension and publicly berated his Minister. Mugabe emerged as the magnanimous and generous leader with interests of the people at heart. He has used this strategy to endear himself, especially with the rural population, where he has drawn most of his votes over the years.

Occupy the moral high ground and transform the war into a moral crusade

According to Greene, in politics, your cause must appear to be more just compared to the opponent’s cause. This can be achieved by questioning the enemy’s motives, presenting them as immoral and evil. It also helps to target their vulnerabilities and elevating their mistakes. This makes them look bad in the eyes of the public, thereby narrowing their pool of support. “Never assume that the justice of your cause is self-evident,” says Greene. “Publicise and promote it … If possible, position yourself as the underdog, the victim, the martyr …”

A close look at Mugabe’s career demonstrates how he has been adept at occupying the moral high ground against opponents. When he is accused of violating human rights, Mugabe retorts that he is a crusader for human rights of the poor. When Britain accused him of breaching human rights, his retort was that he taught them human rights by leading the liberation war against the colonial regime. When the West has accused him of violating human rights, he has highlighted the unfairness of the global system against the African continent, earning him wide acclaim among fellow Africans. When he gets the opportunity to address the UN he maximises on it by speaking on behalf of the poor, often marginalised developing nations. Back home, Mugabe has moulded himself as a victim of Western machinations. Sanctions, he argues, are punishment not for any human rights violations but because he did the unthinkable and took away land from the white farmers and gave it to the black Africans. The opposition parties such as the MDC are mere puppets of the West, he says, arguing that their sole purpose is to reverse the land reform programme by giving land back to the white farmers. In this way, Mugabe has turned his political war into a moral crusade. He is fighting a just war.

While the MDC has presented itself as more justified than ZANU PF, Mugabe has countered that by presenting himself as a fighter for the poor and marginalised. This has earned him friends in important places across the continent. In President Thabo Mbeki for example, Mugabe earned an important ally who believed in his cause. Mugabe successfully turned an internal political battle between ZANU PF and the MDC into a bi-lateral conflict between Zimbabwe and Britain, the former colonial power. In this way, it became a war against the former imperial power. It reduced the MDC’s standing in the eyes of a number of African countries, who took time to understand its cause. Mugabe had managed to create the image of the MDC as an instrument of imperialism.

According to Greene, “The secret to motivating people and maintaining their morale is to get them to think less about themselves and more about the group. Involve them in a cause, a crusade against a hated enemy … a motivated army can work wonders, making up for any lack of material resources”. In turning to the land issue, Mugabe made his supporters and many other people believe that he was fighting a worthy cause. The fact that the opposition had arisen out of grievances to do with bad governance was overshadowed by the morally-charged issue over land inequalities, within their origins steeped in the colonial era. It is not unusual to hear people say that they disagree with Mugabe on many things but that they agree with him over the land issue. The fact that Britain was very vocal about the issue played into his hands – how hard could it be to motivate supporters against a former colonial power? After giving people land, he earned himself a core group of loyalists who are grateful to him for his boldness but also who will defend him against perceived enemies. Mugabe never tires of reminding them that if he is removed from power, they will lose their land. Keeping Mugabe and ZANU PF in power becomes a shared and collective interest, with him as the major beneficiary.

Never admit wrong-doing – generate scapegoats

One of Mugabe’s long-standing strategies is to never accept responsibility for wrong doing. Instead, there is always someone to blame for Zimbabwe’s many troubles. At independence, Mugabe inherited a functional economy with a solid infrastructure. One of his biggest backers during the war, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania called it a jewel. However, Mugabe’s regime has managed to run it down to desperate penury. For Mugabe, it’s nothing to do with his leadership. If he is not blaming the opposition and the weather, he is blaming the West. Furthermore, while it is common knowledge that the buck must stop with the leader, Mugabe has always managed to make his ministers the scapegoats. It is not uncommon to hear people blaming Mugabe’s ministers or those around him for giving him poor advice. This has the effect of absolving him. It’s never his fault. This message has been drummed into his supporters by the state media propaganda machine that a significant number believe he is faultless.

Set the agenda and keep them busy

A leader must set the agenda, so that others follow. Opponents must react to your agenda. In fact, good fighters ensure that the opponent is always responding. It tires them out as they do not know what else is coming. More significantly, it ensures that the enemy is always pre-occupied not with their own issues but with those issues that you place on the table. All this is consistent with Sun Tzu’s teachings, “Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted. Therefore, the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.”

Mugabe has mastered this lesson very well. He and ZANU PF are always setting the agenda. The opposition parties are almost always responding to the agenda that Mugabe and his party set. Whether it is land, indigenisation or sanctions, the opposition is always kept on the defensive, fire-fighting. Being on the defensive means the opposition’s issues are perennially overshadowed. In 2013, Mugabe and his party were already on the electoral field long before the opposition arrived. They set the agenda from day one of the Inclusive Government, always demanding an election because they knew the violence of 2008 was still operating to their advantage. The opposition was always on the defensive, resisting the election knowing conditions favoured Mugabe. In the end, he got his way in 2013, with the captured judiciary accepting the demand for an early election.

Of course, Mugabe and ZANU PF benefit from their tight control of state media. It means they control the major channels of information – what qualifies as news, how it is delivered, what time it is disseminated and to whom it is delivered. This helps them to set the agenda so that the opposition are always responding.

Be bold and resolute

Law 28 of Greene’s laws of power states that a leader must act with boldness and avoid being timid. “If you are unsure of a course of action, do not attempt it. Your doubts and hesitations will infect your execution. Timidity is dangerous: Better to enter with boldness,” says Greene. “Any mistakes you commit through audacity are easily corrected with more audacity. Everyone admires the bold; no one honours the timid.”

There are many qualities to Mugabe, some good, mostly bad but no one can accuse him of timidity. When he sets out to do something, he forges ahead and does it. He does not care what people think of him. He will go ahead and do what he wants. Perhaps the most appropriate description is that he has chutzpah. The most audacious move in recent memory by any leader was to undertake the land reform programme in 2000 and in the manner that it was done. This was at a time when most observers did not think he would carry it on to the end given the devastating consequences of the exercise in the short term. He did what few leaders would have contemplated doing at any time or anywhere in the world. It was the most audacious assault on an entrenched system of property rights whose repercussions were felt beyond Africa. Within a decade, a century-old system of land ownership had been reversed, completing a process which can only rightly be called a land revolution.

When he is long gone, he will be remembered for that audacious and resolute act which defied odds. If he had stopped and thought about the consequences, he might have hesitated. He didn’t. It made him many enemies but it also made him a lot of friends and sympathisers in Africa and across the developing world. As has been pointed out, he transformed his political battle into a moral crusade. It was the most important card that bought him more time in power and he would have dealt that card if he wasn’t bold and resolute enough.

Leave a way to life

According to Sun Tzu, when you are fighting the enemy and you are defeating him and he has his back to a wall, leave away to life. “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard” says Sun Tzu. The reason is that when an enemy is desperate and has no way out, he will fight to the death and fighting someone in that state of mind is dangerous. They have nothing to lose. But when you leave a way out, they can flee. They know they have a chance and will run. Greene also warns in Law 47 not to go beyond the mark aimed for. “The moment of victory is often the moment of greatest peril,” warns Greene. “In the heat of victory, arrogance and overconfidence can push you past the goal you had aimed for, and by going too far, you make more enemies than you defeat. Do not allow success to go to your head. There is no substitute for strategy and careful planning. Set a goal, and when you reach it, stop.”

Some people wonder why Mugabe has been generous towards Tsvangirai after the 2013 elections but after reading the above, the strategic motives should be clearer. By winning the 2013 election, Mugabe had achieved his major aim. There was nothing more to be achieved by humiliating Tsvangirai. Evicting him might have appeared vindictive and created a pool of sympathy which would benefit his wounded adversary. If anything, letting Tsvangirai stay in his government issued property gave the impression that Mugabe was a generous and magnanimous leader. It is the strategy of selective generosity combined with the strategy of leaving a way out for his nemesis. He had surrounded his major opponent, but true to Sun Tzu’s philosophy, letting him keep the property was a way to life. It was not the first that Mugabe had used this strategy to neutralise a defeated opponent. Back in 1987, the Unity Accord with Joshua Nkomo and PF ZAPU represented another “way to life” for an adversary. The political and military campaign against PF ZAPU codenamed Operation Gukurahundi had decimated the opponent and caused untold suffering in the Matebeleland and Midlands provinces. With Nkomo at the table, Mugabe had achieved his aim and the Unity Accord and new space for PF ZAPU in government was a “way to life”.

Against Tsvangirai and Nkomo a haughty leader might have been more vindictive. Mugabe knew there was no point once he had achieved his aim in both cases. If anything, in the case of Tsvangirai, he might use his apparent generosity to his advantage come the 2018 elections.


There is much to be said about Mugabe’s art of keeping power. 37 years in power is a long period of time. One of the things is does well is to get others to do the dirty work while taking the credit and warding off guilt. It’s people like Mnangagwa and Shiri who are blamed for Gukurahundi, even though Mugabe was the leader.

Sun Tzu says in war, a leader must have knowledge of himself, his enemy and the terrain. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Mugabe has mastered this art so well.

He can appear generous but he uses deception. He deploys infiltrators to destroy from within and uses divide and rule to great effect, as the opposition and factions in his own party testify. He rewards those around him and ensures that they fight for his cause. He has made himself the centre of power and claims the moral high ground, transforming his political survival into a moral crusade. He has built a cult following. But above all, he is cunningly deceptive. It is his ability to use law and force, to be man and beast at the same time that has served him well.

Further reading:

Machiavelli, The Prince Edited by Quentin Skinner and Russell Price

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power

Robert Greene, 33 Strategies of War