Reports of Robert Mugabe's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Last week, many media outlets wrote that the Zimbabwean dictator--having failed to defeat his opponents in the country's March 29 presidential and parliamentary elections--was planning to leave office peacefully, in exchange for a promise that he would not face punishment at the hands of the country's democratically-elected leaders. "Mugabe ready to step down," read the headline of an April 1 Agence France Presse story. "Talks May End Mugabe’s Rule in Zimbabwe," The New York Times reported the same day. Mark Malloch Brown, Great Britain's minister for Africa, Asia, and the U.N., also confident, told the House of Commons that Mugabe would be out of office by last Friday. When Friday rolled around and that didn't happen, The Guardian nonetheless quoted an opposition source saying that "the ball is rolling" for a Mugabe departure. These hopes were understandably boosted by the news, released last Wednesday, that the opposition MDC party beat Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF in the parliamentary election, marking the first time in Zimbabwe's 28-year history that the ruling party was defeated at the polls.
But as events over the past several days now show, such conjecture was premature. Though voting in the presidential election ended well over a week ago, the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission has yet to release the full results, a sure sign that the regime is doing everything it can to further rig what was already a rigged election. Last week, Zimbabwean police ransacked the offices of the MDC and arrested foreign journalists, including The New York Times’s Barry Bearak. Pro-government thugs also raided 60 of the few remaining white-owned farms in a replay of the disastrous events of 2000 that led to the country’s current hunger crisis. And this week, the Sunday Times of London reported that the democratic opposition was preparing for Mugabe to launch a “dirty war.”
Talk of a peaceful end to Mugabe’s rule was to be expected. In a country like Zimbabwe, ruled by fear and where a free press is non-existent, rumors--especially positive ones--can spread like wildfire. From my time in the country, I learned that a purely speculative text message from an opposition operative to a reporter could, in a matter of minutes, lead to a poorly sourced news story. Ironically, these sorts of optimistic articles probably had an anxious effect on an already paranoid Mugabe war cabinet, convincing the dictator and the leaders of the country’s security forces to hunker down even further.
Given a review of Mugabe’s history, expecting him to leave office as the result of losing an election seems off base. Going all the way back to 1980, when he was first elected Prime Minister of Zimbabwe (he abolished his former position in order to become president in 1987), Mugabe has always demonstrated a propensity for ignoring the will of his people and using violence to achieve his ends.
Mugabe ventured into his first election in 1980 on the promise that if he did not win, he would continue to wage the guerilla war that had, by that point, claimed 30,000 lives. Throughout the 1970s, he had promised to rule Zimbabwe as a one-party state, and not long after taking power, he took steps to achieve just that, going so far as to drive his erstwhile guerilla colleague, Joshua Nkomo, into exile, and imprisoning other political foes. In the mid-1980’s, Mugabe launched a murderous campaign against civilians belonging to the country’s minority Ndebele tribe, killing an estimated 20,000 and striking fear in anyone who might contemplate a challenge to his rule.
Perhaps the closest historical parallel to the crisis Mugabe currently faces was his stunning defeat in a 2000 constitutional referendum. Mugabe supported a series of reforms that would have extended the period he could serve as president, immunize him and his cronies from future prosecution, and allow the government to seize white-owned farms without compensation. The country’s democratic opposition encouraged a boycott of the poll, and Mugabe still lost, 55% to 45%. But of course he didn’t listen to the people: He allowed veterans (and those claiming to be veterans) of the country’s liberation war to set upon private farms, and he made farm seizures a state policy, leading to the humanitarian catastrophe of today.
During the last presidential and parliamentary elections, in 2002 and 2005 respectively, independent observers and journalists reported all manner of voter intimidation, vote rigging, and outright violence. Weeks after the 2005 election, Mugabe punished opposition supporters in the country’s capital city of Harare by launching “Operation Drive Out Trash,” a purported “slum clearance” scheme that destroyed the homes of an estimated 700,000 people in an attempt to force them into the countryside to starve. Last March, Mugabe violently quelled a peaceful democracy protest, and had his police beat opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
What does this history say about the country’s current situation? That throughout his career as one of the world’s longest-serving dictators Robert Mugabe has never hesitated to use theft, threats of violence, or outright murder to get his way. "I say don't wait for dead bodies on the streets of Harare. Intervene now. There's a constitutional and legal crisis in Zimbabwe," MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti pleaded at a Monday news conference, drawing allusions to the Rwandan genocide.
Though the likelihood of such a massive slaughter is slim, Biti has reason to be scared. The regime has already detained scores of opposition activists and arrested seven members of the country’s electoral commission, accusing the latter of undercounting votes for Mugabe. Last Friday, 400 “war veterans” marched through the streets of Harare in silence, a demonstration of force meant to signal that the state-sanctioned terror of 2000 could easily be repeated should Mugabe give the order. The way Mugabe sees it, bloodshed is in his best interest: Inciting violence would give him the pretext to declare a state of emergency and postpone a runoff presidential election indefinitely. Mugabe has reportedly drawn up plans to dispatch 200 senior military commanders throughout the country to execute a campaign of intimidation and violence in preparation for a potential run-off.
Like too many leaders in Africa who came into office after spearheading liberation movements, Mugabe believes that he has an irrevocable right to rule his country, an entitlement that can’t be overturned at the ballot box. Sadly, there is nothing in his history to indicate that he would accept the humiliation of an election defeat or even a brokered end to his rule that entails protection from prosecution--an offer that Tsvangirai has repeatedly made to Mugabe and top regime officials. Indeed, all of the telltale steps of violent crackdown are already in the offing, while the world--including, most shamefully, neighboring South Africa--sits and watches. Mugabe used to brag that he had earned “a degree in violence.” Expect him to use it.
Jamie Kirchick is an assistant editor for The New Republic.