Running for President or Running for His Life?

At 84, he's destroyed his country and his legacy. Why won't Mugabe get out of the race?

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Zimbabwe will hold a run-off election on June 27. Presidential contender Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader, insists that he and his party have already won. But Robert Mugabe, the wily leader of the ruling ZANU-PF party refused to accept the results and in time—an unprecedented long time—the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission agreed that neither presidential candidate had gotten the necessary majority to declare himself the winner. But throughout the contested campaign and prolonged announcement of the results, one question keeps coming up:

What makes Mugabe run?

Robert Gabriel Mugabe is older than John McCain. Eighty four, to be exact. His country, as well as his struggle legacy is in tatters and the era of the Big Man all across Africa is drawing to a close as new rules of the African road call for an end to the era of president for life, and a growing number of African leaders are answering the call.

So, why does Mugabe, whose historical credits as Zimbabwe's liberator and its educator are now being tarnished by his current deficits—an economy in the toilet and a society in chaos, now run and run and run against the new Democratic tide?

It's possible that no one other than Mugabe himself knows the real answer to that question, and it is hard for anyone these days to ask him, especially most independent media. So I cannot say, "Ask Robert Mugabe."

But, consider this:

In the past few years as Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change Party, the first ever opposition to his rule, grew stronger, Mugabe fought them with a vengeance boarding on what many have argued (and some have documented) are gross violations of human rights. (Ask Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and various Zimbabwean human rights groups, including Doctors for Human Rights who have chronicled a long litany of human rights abuses, including torture.)

I myself have interviewed young men who were a part of an organization called the Green Bombers, which Mugabe and his ZANU-PF Party described as a youth brigade schooled in discipline and patriotic values. But the Green Bombers are widely regarded as a private governing party militia made up of young vicious thugs who would do anything they were called on to do—from raping girls and women opposing the ruling party to murder—to ingratiate themselves with the party and maybe at the least put food on the table at a time when there is so little—unless you are politically connected. [Ask CARE and other NGOs that have been barred from distributing food in recent days what's up with that, if not to make the political handouts the only source of food.]

One of the Green Bombers who finally got fed up with the violence and who perhaps didn't get what he had either been promised or thought he was going to get described to me in detail how he was taught to kill opponents of Mugabe's government—including coming up behind someone, putting a chord around his (or her) neck and twisting it until he (or she) could no longer breathe. In other words, choked to death. The targets sometimes included members of the Green Bomber's family and the elderly, the young man told me.

So, consider this: