An Obsession with Power and Control

Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe

Reviewed By: Bruce Riley Ashford

Martin Meredith’s Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe is not a book for the faint of heart. It is an account of Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence, the (culturally Christian) Mugabe’s rise to power, and his metamorphosis from responsible revolutionary into brutal dictator willing to slaughter his own people, including friends and associates.

Mugabe was born the son of a village carpenter. He was educated and raised by Jesuits at a mission station in Zvimba, where he was known as a quiet boy who loved books and learning. Eventually, he earned multiple degrees in law and economics. He became a political revolutionary, spent time in prison, and soon took control of the Zanu-PF revolutionary movement and became President of Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia).

In his first television appearances after winning the election he seemed to be a model of moderation and stability. However, he became increasingly obsessed with power and total control: “Mugabe’s ultimate objective, Meredith writes, “was to destroy all opposition to his regime. Determined to remain in power, he used all the resources of the government to attack his opponents, sanctioning murder, torture, and lawlessness of every kind.” He was surrounded by syncophants and therefore knew few restraints. He attacked not only the whites (who he claimed were causing the downfall of the country) but also his own people and even his lieutenants and former friends.

Examples abound of Mugabe’s brutality. One of the author’s examples is Mugabe’s formation of the “5th Brigade,” a police force trained by the North Koreans and commissioned to bring terror upon his rivals, killing at least 10,000 civilians as well as arresting, detaining, and torturing thousands of others. One of his enforcers, Chiyangwa, was filmed by a television crew giving the following instructions: “If you get hold of MDC supporters, beat them until they are dead. Burn their farms and their workers’ houses, then run away fast and we will blame the burning of the workers’ houses on the white. Report to the police, because they are ours.” Mugabe was so proud of his record that, in 2000, he boasted of having a “degree in violence.” “We will kill those snakes among us, we will smash them completely,” Mugabe declared. “No matter what force you have, this is my territory and that which is mine I cling [to] unto death.

In addition to brutality, Mugabe ushered in an era of unprecedented corruption. Meredith writes, “Whatever good intentions he started out with-plans for improved education and health facilities-soon diminished in importance. For all his talk of striving for socialism, Mugabe never displayed much concern for the welfare of common people. The main beneficiaries of independence, all too clearly, were Zanu-PF’s ruling elite.” In spite of his initial promise of a better life for ordinary citizens, those citizens were much worse off during his reign than in the colonial days that preceeded.

Mugabe’s rule has been marked by a widening gap between the rich (the elite of his ruling party) and the poor, a failure to manage the public sector, and the battering of any opposition. “The cost of this strategy,” writes Meredith, “has been enormous. Zimbabwe has been reduced to a bankrupt and impoverished state, threatened by economic collapse and catastrophic food shortages.

In reflecting on this book and the lessons to be learned from its story, I am reminded once again of the deep and pervasive effects of the Fall. Here is Robert Mugabe, one of God’s image-bearers, who found it acceptable to torture and slaughter countless of his own people, including friends, and accrue all of the benefits of his rule for himself and his lieutenants. Throughout the book, one sees the effects of Mugabe’s idolatry on every aspect of his being (spiritual, moral, relational, rational, creative, etc.) and in every realm of the society over which he ruled.

The story also offers a lesson on citizenship. Meredith’s greatest literary triumph was his ability to show the thread of hope that is woven into Zimbabwe’s otherwise horrific recent history. Time and again, he showed the resilient spirit of the citizens of that country with the implication that we can, and ought to, learn from their example of citizenship. We can learn from the tireless efforts of the various opposition parties, the bravery of individual citizens who risked their lives every time they cast a vote against Mugabe, and the determination of the high court to reprimand Mugabe every time he flouted the rule of law. Such citizenship is part of our calling from God.

Finally, I am struck by how the gospel narrative puts Zimbabwe’s national narrative in perspective. What we are able to add to Meredith’s account is that (1) it should be made clear that although Mugabe was a man immersed in religion, he was never changed by the gospel; (2) even if the people of Zimbabwe never find even a modicum of justice or peace on this earth, the gospel extends an invitation for them to become citizens of another city, where justice and peace abound; and (3) it is the responsibility of God’s people, including the ones reading this blogpost, to take this good news to those in Zimbabwe who have never heard it.

This series of posts deals with the global context in its many dimensions-historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and religious. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.

Book: Mugabe (2007)

Author: Martin Meredith

Region: Africa (Zimbabwe)

Genre: Current Affairs

Length: 272 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate