Mugabe: A man consumed by fear


Last week’s Big Saturday Read looked at Mugabe’s lengthy reign over Zimbabwe through analysis of an eclectic mix of strategies that have sustained his rule. Today, he marks his 93rd year, 37 of those year in power. His latest interview with the ZBC, the national broadcaster, shows a broken figure who is struggling to construct coherent sentences. For a man who once commanded the stage so masterfully, it’s more than a pitiful sight.

Despite the obvious signs of deteriorating capacity, he insists that he is still good enough to lead, even arguing that there is no suitable alternative within his party, a serious rebuke on increasingly impatient presidential aspirants. Mugabe has often come across as a strong character driven by ambition, but behind that veneer of bravado lies a terrified soul who is really driven by fear. His obstinacy and refusal to retire is predominantly driven by fear arising from a number of sources.

Comforts of office

First, Mugabe is scared of life outside the comforts of powerful office. He has spent the bulk of his adult life in a position of immense power. He does not know any other life outside office. He has lived a sheltered life for far too long. Everything in his world is almost perfect. He moves around in a long motorcade, guarded at all corners. The roads to his home have bright lights and are well paved. There are no potholes to disturb the presidential ride. All traffic stops for him when he passes. He literally sees Zimbabwe through tinted windows. Everything is organised to meet his personal desires and comforts.

Except when he is on his lavish vacations, he does not go out to have dinner like normal people do. He has no familiarity with the day to day lives of ordinary people in the townships or even in the affluent suburbs. Whereas his predecessor Ian Smith could easily drive an ordinary car or walk the street or into a shop, Mugabe has never and would never dare do that, even in a “free” Zimbabwe. Ordinary life must frighten him a great deal. He cannot imagine himself living an ordinary life. He would not cope.

Fear of prosecution

Second, Mugabe is scared of retribution and losing the protection of office. As leader, he has presided over so much that could expose him to criminal or civil  prosecution. The only shield that protects him is presidential immunity, which he would lose upon vacating office. His long reign has produced many victims and survivors who might seek redress. Gukurahundi and the 2008 election violence are just two familiar examples. His age might not even offer protection. Survivors and victims of former Chilean dictator, the late Pinochet pursued him in his twilight years. Closer in Africa, Charles Taylor, the former Liberian tyrant, is serving a jail term for past atrocities during his murderous reign. Mugabe genuinely fears prosecution.

Lack of trust

Third, although he has a support base that is loyal, Mugabe has a fear of those around him because he does not trust them. There are ministers who have served him in government for all 37 years of his rule. They have even done some dirty work on his behalf. The likes of Emmerson Mnangagwa and Sydney Sekeramayi come to mind. But still, Mugabe does not trust them with power. They are as clueless of his intentions as everyone else. They struggle to get access to him like everyone else. He could have passed on the baton to one of them, if he believed they would protect him. But he has a congenital fear of betrayal. He does not trust them to look after his interests. That is why they have to wait until his death, when he won’t have to fear any betrayal.

Addicted to power

Fourth, Mugabe shows signs of a man who is addicted to power. Just like the drug addict or alcoholic who needs a regular fix, Mugabe cannot do without a regular dose of power. He is genuinely scared of losing his fix. Like any other addict, without power, he would suffer serious withdrawals symptoms and effects. To save himself the trouble, he must retain power until death permanently separates him from the world.

Fear of himself

Fifth, a peek into his personal history suggests he has a deep fear of himself, arising from a fear of emulating his father, who abandoned his home and family when Mugabe was only ten years old. For a long time, Mugabe never spoke publicly about his paternal side. It’s only in recent years that he has made references to his father and there are signs of resentment. He has explained how his father left home in 1934, after his eldest son, Michael died in suspicious circumstances. Mugabe has said his father left home because he was not happy and thought there was something wrong with the family.

But Mugabe’s father went away for a long time, virtually deserting the family. “I was not happy after he had taken his time to come back home and wrote a letter to him expressing my displeasure,” Mugabe told mourners at the funeral of his younger sister Bridgette in 2014. He also disclosed how he had gone on to trace his father to Bulawayo when he was only 19. He found that his father had remarried and had other children. The father later returned home when he was unwell, together with his other children. There are indications that Mugabe resented his father’s weaknesses. He probably sees resigning from office as a sign of weakness and failure – or at least an admission of failure.

This type of fear bears a strong resemblance to the fear which haunted Okonkwo, the tragic hero in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. “Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man,” writes Achebe. “But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external, but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness …”

Perhaps, then, far from being the strong character that he presents, Mugabe is really a victim of his own deep-seated fears. Perhaps it is the fear of himself, a fear that he might resemble his father who resigned in the face of challenges. Resigning into retirement would represent weakness and failure in the face of adversity, just like his father had done before. His rejoinder is to hang on at whatever cost to himself or anyone else.

Rule for life

An old comrade of his from the liberation war years, the late Edgar Tekere once warned that Mugabe intended to rule the nation for life. That was back in the late 1980s. Few took notice, let alone believed him. It’s a long time since Tekere gave that warning and he himself has been gone for some years now. Mugabe is now into his 37th year in power and he shows no signs of relenting. There is nothing more that he can do now that he couldn’t do in 37 years. If there is a driving force for what seems to be an irrational and unreasonable pursuit of power, it is probably that he is scared. He is driven by fear –  a fear of himself and a fear of what might happen to him without the cover of office.