Robert Mugabe: Robert the brute

The President of Zimbabwe was 80 yesterday. In less than 25 years, the unyielding and increasingly embittered former teacher has led his once-prosperous African nation into famine and repression. He can expect little in the way of celebration
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An embittered old man turned 80 yesterday, still in charge after nearly a quarter of a century, and driving the country he leads ever deeper into despair. Torture has become a state tool; the independent press is harassed; the judiciary has been coerced. Tourism has collapsed; poaching thrives. Development aid is frozen; the currency is worthless as inflation reaches four figures. Drought and the deliberate destruction of white-dominated commercial farming have left millions of his people hungry. Happy birthday, President Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

Once seen as an African success story, Zimbabwe has slid towards collapse with astonishing speed. A man hailed for his speech of racial reconciliation at independence in 1980, followed by his appointment of whites to the first cabinet, is now seen as the catalyst for disaster.

Zimbabwe was conceived in the 1890s, the product of a colonial carve-up and British commerce, and liberated in 1979 after a guerrilla war. Twenty-five years later it is in the hands of an octogenarian not much younger than the country he has brutalised.

Born in 1924, Robert Mugabe was educated by Catholic missionaries and has invoked their memory in his harsh condemnations of homosexuality - an attitude that led him to say the British government was being run by a gay cartel. But that very public accusation was also a pragmatic move for the fighter turned politician who became influenced by Marxism during the battle for independence. For some, Mugabe is simply a well-educated thug with half a dozen degrees to his name, driven by racist values and authoritarian instincts, a widower now living with a spendthrift second wife and their children, and treating the state airline as his private fleet for frequent trips abroad. For others he may be all this, but he is also a casualty of his times shaped and distorted by southern Africa's grim history, a creature of the British empire, whose legacy he is determined to redress.

An austere, articulate but reserved man, with a dry sense of humour, and the demeanour of the strict schoolmaster that he once was, he has reason to feel bitter. The white Rhodesian government detained him in 1964; when his only son died of malaria in Tanzania in 1966 Mugabe was refused permission to attend the funeral. But it needs more than this episode to explain how he became ruthless and unbending. When white Rhodesia sued for peace he insisted on black majority rule or nothing - just as there has been no compromise in his treatment of the country's white farmers, and no tolerance of Zimbabwe's growing opposition movement.

For Mugabe's critics, the expropriation of white farms that began in the early 1990s is driven not by principle, and the desire to resettle black families. It is, they say, a crude attempt to entrench his power, using a populist issue to conceal his determination to cling to office.

The campaign was triggered by two events: the referendum on constitutional change in 2000, which Mugabe lost, and a controversial win in the 2002 elections, in which state intimidation was the order of the day. Events since then support the opposition's claim that Zimbabwe is in the grips of a venal oligarchy. Farms have been awarded not to land-hungry peasant farmers, but to Mugabe's cronies. The judiciary has been intimidated, the police turned into an arm of the ruling party. The country's main opposition paper, the Daily News, has had its presses and staff attacked, and has been closed down. Dissent has been suppressed by an army which had helped to strip the Congo of its resources, and threatens protesters with shoot-to-kill warnings.

Mugabe shrugs off all criticism, and takes refuge in history. The West's record in southern Africa has been wrong as well as racist, he argues. In the 1960s Britain opposed a railway from Zambia to Tanzania that would reduce black southern Africa's dependence on routes through apartheid South Africa. The UK was also against the marriage of Botswana's first president to his white fiancée.

Nor has he forgiven Britain and its Western allies over southern Africa's battle for liberation, when they supported the white minority regimes in Angola and Mozambique, and were half-hearted converts to the anti-apartheid cause. And it was Britain, he will remind listeners, that chaired the conference in 1963 that presided over the break-up of the Federation of Southern and Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, and allocated its military assets to the white minority government in Rhodesia. Two years later, in November 1965, Ian Smith announced his unilateral declaration of independence. In the name of "Western Christian civilisation" toilets were segregated, multiracial school sport was banned - and the division of the country into black and white areas was consolidated.

The great divide began 100-odd years ago, but the final stages of the whites' land grab is still in living memory. It was as brutal as Zimbabwe today, though with less publicity: tens of thousands of cattle were confiscated from peasant farmers in the 1950s, and as recently as the early 1970s, the Smith regime was attempting to reinforce the foundation of white rule. In one case, Chief Rekayi Tangwenya was driven off his ancestral land, and the homes of his people destroyed. The death toll in the war reached 30,000 before Smith capitulated in late 1979, at the negotiating table of Lancaster House in London. But land remained central: who would fund the buy-out of the 5,000 whites who owned the best commercial farmland?

Private talks in London with British and US officials appeared to satisfy Mugabe, who had been threatening to walk out over the issue. Today he insists that Britain broke the spirit of the Lancaster House deal. But his greatest disillusionment was to come later. President Kenyatta gave similar reassurances to white farmers when Kenya became independent in 1963. But Kenyatta was able to back his reassurance with cash from Britain, Germany and the World Bank. Twice as much money in real terms was made available for the buy-out of the 1,000 or so farmers in Kenya's white highlands as was provided for the 5,000 farmers in Zimbabwe. By 1985, the year of Zimbabwe's first post-independence poll, distrust was corroding Mugabe. The whites had already proved treacherous. A handful had attempted to sabotage the air force, with the backing of Pretoria, as the apartheid regime tried to destabilise its neighbours. The result of the poll, in which most whites stayed loyal to Ian Smith, was seen by Mugabe as a final slap in the face. "We are working with those whites who want to work with us," he told a post-election rally. "But the rest will have to find a new home." Then he switched from English to chiShona: "We will kill those snakes among us. We will smash them completely."

"Not since the war years had Mugabe used such language," writes his biographer, Martin Meredith. "His first victims, however, were not whites but the Ndebele." The man was succumbing to the worst in his nature, and up to 12,000 civilians died as Zimbabwe's troops suppressed a small dissident movement in Matabeleland. The foundations of Zimbabwe were starting to crack; and Mugabe was becoming the man he is now, in all his twisted fullness.

Michael Holman, Africa editor of the 'Financial Times' from 1984 to 2002, was brought up in Zimbabwe