Terrorist in chief: can anything keep Zimbabwe from slipping back into despotism?

Author:Salopek, Paul
Position::The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe - Book review


Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe

By Peter Godwin; Little, Brown; 384 pp.; $26.99

PITY ZIMBABWE. It remains a cause in search of a movement.

After more than a decade of stolen elections and a pogrom masquerading as urban renewal that bulldozed 750,000 poor people from their homes; after millions more of its citizens have hopped its borders, fleeing economic ruin and the mass rapes, beatings, and murders that mark the government's periodic campaigns of political terror, the carnival of woes tormenting one of Africa's loveliest countries rolls murkily on.

President Robert Mugabe, the Botoxed, blood-transfused, and vitamin-shake-swilling octogenarian who once compared himself to Hitler, is tolerating a power-sharing deal with members of his democratic opposition. But perhaps sensing their demoralization, he appears to be preparing yet another sham election in June. Not that he need fear much in the way of global outrage. Nobody will be rallying in Central Park to "Save Zimbabwe" anytime soon.

"My wife, Joanna, who edits a fashion magazine, suggests that this is because we lack a celebrity cheerleader," writes Zimbabwean author and journalist Peter Godwin, "a Clooney, a Farrow, a Damon, Jolie, or Pitt."

In The Fear, his fourth book about his ill-starred homeland, Godwin exposes the more complicated reasons for the world's weariness with Zimbabwe's agonies. Foremost is Mugabe himself, a shrewd autocrat who excels at calibrating his oppression to thwart effective international response. A hopelessly outmatched domestic political opposition doesn't help. (Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe's nemesis, is no Aung San Suu Kyi.) Nor, doubtless, does Zimbabwe's previous incarnation as white-ruled Rhodesia, a tainted legacy that may give pause to human-rights activists who prefer uncomplicated crusades.

Given Godwin's truly horrific account of all this, The Fear is a timely corrective in a year when the country risks slipping back into full-bore despotism.

Godwin, who was born in Zimbabwe, visits the country of his youth in 2008, during the chaos surrounding its last election. He dodges police and the plainclothes henchmen from Mugabe's feared Central Intelligence Organization, who can imprison him at any moment for his clandestine reporting. Along the way, Godwin intercuts the muted sorrows of his life in exile--his ailing mother, a longtime doctor in Zimbabwe, withers away in Britain; he lives in New York City--with dramatic tales of the...

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