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The ultimate victory of an African tyrant

Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2017. Credit: U.N. Photo/Cia Pak.
Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2017. Credit: U.N. Photo/Cia Pak.

By Ben Cohen/

Which single individual made the following statements?

“Gay people are worse than dogs and pigs. I keep pigs and the male pig knows the female one.”

“I am still the Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources.”

“Only God, who appointed me, will remove me.”

“White farmers are so hard-hearted, you would think they were Jews.”

Were it not for the reference to pig farming, one might guess that such statements had been uttered by a Muslim leader like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or Iran’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the man who spoke these words, the man who now finds himself under house arrest in the same country where he proclaimed himself a “Hitler,” is the ailing 93-year-old dictator of Zimbabwe, Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

If the initial reports from Harare turn out to be correct, Mugabe’s removal after 37 years of savagely repressive rule is the consequence of a coup, rather than a democratic revolution. Specifically, it’s a coup against the looming succession of Mugabe’s second wife, Grace—a vicious, deeply corrupt woman who is given to beating and humiliating her house servants when not on shopping trips to Givenchy in Paris.

If that is the case, it may well be that Mugabe’s successor, the recently sacked Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, will allow his former boss to live out his remaining months on Earth in out-of-sight luxury.

That is not how it should end for a man who committed genocide, took a leaf out of Stalin’s book by plunging his country into a deliberate famine, and conducted campaigns of ethnic cleansing against both Zimbabwe’s desperately poor black urban underclass and the once-wealthy community of white farmers. A man such as Robert Mugabe, guilty of grave crimes against humanity, belongs in a prison cell.

There is a chilling passage in the excellent biography of Mugabe by the British journalist Martin Meredith, in which the dictator, during his first year in power, promised his party comrades, “We will kill those snakes among us, we will smash them completely.” However, as Meredith writes, Mugabe’s “first victims were not whites, but the Ndebele and Kalanga peoples.”

Thus was born the “Gukurahundi,” or “People’s Storm,” an ostensible campaign against dissidents that escalated into genocidal mass murder in the northern territory of Matabeleland in 1983-1984. These atrocities were an early warning of where Mugabe was headed—but few people thought he would get as far as 2017 without ever relenting on his brutality.

If one is to judge Mugabe’s entire career, it’s tempting to conclude that he looked contemporaries like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela in the eye, and outmaneuvered (and outlived) all of them. Even if by some miracle he is sentenced for his crimes, prison for him will be a gilded cage. But the likelihood is that he will see out his days without ever being held accountable.

In my view, the worst aspect of Mugabe’s ultimate victory against civilized values is the example it sets. In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has absorbed more from Mugabe than from his own tyrannical predecessor, Hugo Chavez, the conviction that brazen, thuggish brutality and contempt for legal norms is the key to regime survival. Maduro is unlikely to join Mugabe in the club of dictators who got away, but there is no current reason to believe that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad won’t eventually join him there.

When we are reduced to looking at dictators through the lens of historical analysis, rather than placing them on trial in the halls of justice, we are compelled even more to consider the role of our own governments and societies in perpetuating their rule. Few would dispute that Mugabe was a target of moral opprobrium in the West, but that was about as far as it went; protected by the Soviets for the first decade of his rule, Zimbabwe’s misery after the Cold War ended was never regarded in Western capitals as a major threat to peace and security. If, in Eastern Europe, communism was replaced by multiparty democracy, in Zimbabwe it evolved into an undisguised kleptocracy, with psychological fear, state brutality and violence by pro-government vigilantes the three main instruments of control.

It wasn’t until 2002 that the European Union (EU) imposed a regime of travel restrictions and sanctions on Mugabe and his lieutenants, but the dictator was still spotted at United Nations gatherings in New York and Rome, as meetings at international organization were conveniently exempted. In 2015, perhaps as a gift to mark Mugabe’s 90th year, the EU lifted most of these restrictions in recognition of his status as chairman of the African Union. As for the Western left and the post-colonial nations, Mugabe was seen as an anti-imperialist hero in many of these circles—had Western nations gathered to bring him down, he would doubtless have become an icon of the anti-war movement.

A close ally of the Palestinians and of Yasser Arafat personally, Mugabe occasionally uttered anti-Semitic remarks about Jewish money and influence. Anti-Semitism was marginal to his actions, but it seems to have played a role—as it does with most dictators—in shaping his view of the world. It goes with the territory, after all.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.

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