Robert Mugabe and me – how a despot has clung on to power

As the first Western film-maker to gain access to Zimbabwe’s long-time President, Roy Agyemang witnessed his charisma and the anti-colonial zeal that drives him

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In 2007, live on British television, the Archbishop of York, Bishop John Sentamu, cut his collar up with scissors to protest against Robert Mugabe being in power. He said he would only replace his collar if Mugabe were removed.

Five years down the line Robert Mugabe is still the President of Zimbabwe. The 88-year-old leader, recently the subject of a number of health scares, has managed to survive against all odds. He has now been in power for 32 years.

From Britain, that survival may seem extraordinary. Mugabe's Western reputation as a thug is well-documented; evidence was provided, for example, during the elections in 2008 that he and Zanu-PF co-ordinated a campaign of violence against his political opponents. And his country has suffered through rampant inflation and shortages of basic food commodities.

I was in Zimbabwe between 2007 and 2010, when that economic catastrophe was at its height. I thought I was going to witness the ousting of Mugabe. But he just held on. And he is still there.

The question of how Mugabe has clung on to power is of vital importance to anyone trying to understand his country's past, or who hopes that it might have a better future. As the first Western film-maker to gain access to Robert Mugabe, I wanted to understand the answer. Together with my UK-based Zimbabwean fixer, I travelled to all corners of the country with Mugabe, trying to build his trust in the hope that he would give us an interview.

The fact that I stayed in the country and lived through the hardships like the rest of Zimbabweans seemed to help. We ended up travelling as part of his delegation on foreign trips, even catching a ride on Colonel Gaddafi's luxury private plane. And I witnessed first-hand how power can be addictive. It was easy to see why some leaders in Africa are reluctant to hand it over without a fight.

But I saw the more complex roots of that addiction, too. Whatever his misdeeds, Robert Mugabe's need for power has nothing to do with its superficial trappings. There is no doubt the former schoolteacher is a disciplinarian. But that is not the sole reason he has survived. Despite everything, a significant number of Zimbabweans support his pro-African policies: he is obsessed with making sure that black Africans take full control of their natural resources.

"Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans," I heard him say. "It cannot be for the British, it cannot be for the Americans, if you want to be friends with us, fine. You stand there and I stand here, we shake hands but remember, the gold in my country is mine."

Mugabe believes his people are fighting a war for economic independence in Africa, a war far greater than the one for political independence. "They are clever not to give us that aid," he said of the West, when he finally gave me that interview. "If they gave us aid to make us economically independent, then they would not have this lever, the leverage which they now have to control how we run our things."

That spectre of Western power looms large in his view of the world. And since his land redistribution policy began in 2000, Western governments have not supported the newly resettled black farmers, but have chosen instead to impose sanctions on the country. This has played into the hands of his supporters, who feel that Zimbabwe is being punished for Mugabe's policy of taking land from "white people".

Western hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed in Zimbabwe. At the time Mugabe received his knighthood in 1994 on the recommendation of then Prime Minister Sir John Major, there was no meaningful land reform taking place, and Mugabe was accused by some of his people of protecting the white farmers. Worse still, some years earlier in the 1980s, Mugabe authorised the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade to put down armed dissidents from a rival party who were threatening to destabilise the country. The operation was code-named Gukurahundi. Atrocities were committed. Mugabe later acknowledged that it was "a moment of madness".

Yet, as these atrocities were being committed, Western institutions were rewarding him with honorary doctorates. So now, he would argue, he has redressed a colonial imbalance: his former friends are now his enemies. That reversal may explain why, before I spent time with the man, I always had this perception of a dictator disconnected from his people. But Mugabe clearly has a special relationship with the grass roots. He would travel the length and breadth of the country delivering two-hour speeches, often twice a day.

Some village chiefs would openly criticise the lack of development in their area. Listening to stories of people going hungry should have affected the old man: his legacy was being eroded. But in typical Mugabe style, he was able to rally his support, blaming the suffering on the sanctions imposed by the West. "Your sanctions will in future demand reciprocation from us," he would cry. "When we reciprocate, we will hit your companies here."

That charisma is visible up close, too. Once you get through the security personnel and government ministers, what you see is a very smartly dressed, quite ordinary old man. He was witty, charming and always had the sharpest mind in the room. I was in many forums where he would sit with other African presidents, and he was always one step ahead of them.

I had a conversation with Mugabe which left a lasting legacy with me. He called by my surname – Agyemang – and he said to me: "I understand Ghana has found themselves a bit of oil." And I replied: "Yes, your Excellency. Ghana should be pumping oil for the next 150 years." To which he replied: "What are you, as a British-born Ghanaian, going to do to help develop or benefit from that resource?" I was silent.

Soon after that conversation I went to Ghana and purchased a bit of land, which one day I hope to develop, and from which Ghanaians and my children will benefit. But now I understand the feeling of empowerment.

It is strange to say that I owe this to Mugabe. And it is strange to say that so many of his compatriots feel something similar. But it is, perhaps, part of why he has held on for so long. And it is part of why he shows no sign of going away.

Mugabe: Villain or Hero? will be screened for the first time at BFI Southbank at 2pm today as part of the African Odysseys series

Robert Mugabe: Story of survival

1980 Robert Mugabe becomes prime minister after his ZANU-PF party wins independence elections

1982 Mugabe's troops are accused of killing thousands of civilians while defeating a guerrilla rebellion

1987 Mugabe makes himself executive president with new powers

1990 ZANU-PF and Mugabe win parliamentary and presidential elections

1998 High inflation leads to riots and a swell in support for rival Morgan Tsvangirai

2000 Mugabe oversees the seizure of white-owned farms by veterans of the independence war

2001 President blames food shortages on drought but opponents say farm seizures are responsible

2002 Elections criticised by observers give victory to Mugabe over Tsvangirai, before more land acquisition laws are passed

2008 Mugabe beats Tsvangirai in presidential run-off, but hyperinflation leads to a power-sharing deal

2009 Mugabe swears in Tsvangirai as prime minister

2011 Mugabe says power-sharing government is a monster and confirms he will run as president again

Rob Hastings

Mugabe: Villain or Hero? will be screened for the first time at BFI Southbank at 2pm today as part  of the African Odysseys series