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:
A few days ago, Belgian police arrested former Congolese warlord Jean Pierre-Bemba after the International Criminal Court in the Hague issued the warrant for his arrest on charges of mass murder, rape as a weapon of war, torture and other crimes against humanity while he was head of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo, a militia fighting in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003.
The Associated Press quoted the War Crimes Deputy Prosecutor:
"There are no excuses for hundreds of rapes…There are no excuses for the rape of a little girl, with her parents watching. There are no excuses for commanders ordering, authorizing or acquiescing to the commission of rapes and looting by their forces."
Bemba came in second to Joseph Kabila in the Congo's first election in 40 years that followed a devastating civil war. He fled the country after the election, when he was charged with treason.
And there's more…
A warrant has been issued for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the shadowy leader of the Northern Uganda militia known as the Lord's Resistance Army who has spearheaded a reign or terror for the past 20 years, recruiting thousands of children as fighters and sex slaves and hacking off the lips of its war victims.
And perhaps the "unkindest cut of all"—depending on your perspective: Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, of Blood Diamonds infamy, who used the precious rocks for the unprecious pursuit of the brutal war in neighboring Sierra Leone, where children were also abducted a la Kony, injected with cocaine to make them wildly vicious little weapons of unprecious war, driving them to big jobs—hacking off the limbs of "enemy toddlers", as well as their parents and others. Taylor is now on trial before the ICC for crimes against humanity, the first ousted president to be so charged. Initially, to get him out of the way to make room for a democratically elected president, a deal was struck that allowed him to live in exile in Nigeria. But no sooner had new Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf been installed that she called for his extradition, and he was removed from Nigeria and transported to The Hague, where he is now on trial for gross violations of human rights.
Some African leaders and analysts worried about this precedent and the impact it would have to entice to leave future leaders who had stayed too long and done too much wrong.
And then there's the case of Mengistu Haile Mariam aka The Butcher of Ethiopia, so named after his Red Terror Campaign, a purge in which his forces tortured and murdered more than a million Ethiopians. Mengistu, a Marxist, justified as being necessary to eliminate the "very backward, archaic and feudalist system" of Emperor Haile Selassie, was overthrown in 1974, as the Star newspaper of South Africa reported in an interview with Mengistu from Zimbabwe.
In the interview, Mengistu even denied having ordered the death of Haile Selassie, saying: "He was 80 years old and a very weak man. We tried our best to save him, but we could not keep him."
Before he fled into exile in 1991, I got a rare interview with Mengistu in the capital Addis Ababa for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. And as I conducted the interview in the room in the Palace where he is said to have once mowed down members of his Cabinet, I ever so delicately put the question to him about the charges that he had murdered countless numbers of Ethiopians. He looked me dead in the eye, with his dead cold eyes and said: "Who me? I wouldn't hurt a fly."
And even after all these years, whenever I am in the United States and get into a cab driven by an Ethiopian in exile because of him, once they hear my voice, unfailingly, they say, almost without deviation: "Ah, you are the one who interviewed Mengistu. You are the one he told he wouldn't hurt a fly."
Last month, a court in Addis sentenced Mengistu to death after being convicted of genocide. Since he fled Ethiopia, Mengistu has lived—some say comfortably—in Harare, although I have never seen his abode. But he must be a bit uncomfortable now, as the prospect of a defeat for his host and protector, Mugabe, looms.
But is this one of the reasons Mugabe runs—to continue to protect Mengistu from extradition? Or is it to avoid the same fate as Mengistu? Or the fate of Charles Taylor, Jean-Pierre Bemba and Joseph Kony? Is Mugabe worried at all by the words of Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler (among others), who has said: "President Robert Mugabe is responsible for the perpetration of crimes against humanity, including state-orchestrated murder, torture and massive sexual violence."
Or is it none of the above?
Well, all of the above is food for thought…especially if you live in Zimbabwe, where there is no food on the table.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a regular contributor to The Root.