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Robert Mugabe: Revered and Reviled


The president of the southern African state of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, has been strongly criticized in the West for his iron-fisted rule, especially the destruction of his country's economy and brutal suppression of dissidents. Despite Mr. Mugabe's actions, there are Africans who admire him.

Zimbabwe is a land of difficulties. According to its own government, inflation is now at more than 780 percent a year. Food is scarce - - the country's wheat flour makers say that grain could run out soon, and that prospect is already driving the price of bread through the stratosphere. Fuel is also desperately short, hampering transport and commerce.

Analysts say two-thirds of Zimbabwe's population is now out of work and sinking even more deeply into poverty. At the center of it all is Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, and his policies, which are seen by many as a means to preserve power at all costs, even if it results in the destruction of his country.

Robert Mugabe the "Liberator"

Yet to some, Robert Mugabe is a hero, not a villain. Africa analyst Todd Moss at the Washington-based Center for Global Development says admiration of the Zimbabwean leader stems both from his past accomplishments and the continent's customs.

"Mugabe is still considered a father of the anti-colonial struggle, the father of Zimbabwe, and still considered an important independence leader. And some of that reverence constrains people's willingness to criticize him in public. There is, of course, the African tradition of not criticizing your peers, especially to the outside community," says Moss.

In 1963, Robert Mugabe was one of the founders of the Zimbabwe African National Union, or ZANU, a political party he still heads today. He went to Mozambique in 1974 to lead the party's military arm in a fight against Zimbabwe's then-white minority government, which called the country Rhodesia.

In 1978, that government agreed to give way to the black majority, and Robert Mugabe emerged as prime minister in elections held in early 1980. He became Zimbabwe's president in 1987.

Pan-African Support for Robert Mugabe

With his own country under black majority rule, Mr. Mugabe turned his revolutionary zeal toward neighboring South Africa and its white minority apartheid government. Nelson Mandela's African National Congress movement received critical support and refuge from the Zimbabwean leader and that, according to analyst Jennifer Cooke at the Washington - based Center for Strategic and International Studies, is a reason for current South African President Thabo Mbeki's public silence regarding Robert Mugabe.

"Mbeki comes from a liberation movement - - there's a certain solidarity there. People thought this might give him an opportunity to act a little bit more forcefully on Zimbabwe, but his policies showed no significant change. So there's no telling that Mbeki is planning to change his mind anytime soon," says Cooke.

The South African president is not alone in his silence regarding Zimbabwe and its leader. The African Union has taken strong positions on other continental issues such as the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, but has offered no public criticism of Mr. Mugabe.

Bill Fletcher, President of TransAfrica Forum in Washington, says there is a powerful reason for the A.U.'s silence. “Mugabe knows, on a personal level, many of the leaders of other countries," says Fletcher. "So there is, if not a camaraderie, there is a certain relationship that has developed over the years that makes it difficult for one to move against another."

Domestic Policies Draw International Condemnation

Much of the criticism of Robert Mugabe revolves around two events. One is his policy of confiscating land from white farmers, oftentimes by force, and giving it to members and supporters of his ZANU-PF party. Another is the demolition of slums in the capital, Harare, making hundreds-of-thousands of people homeless.

Opponents say those slums were a stronghold for a dissident political group called the Movement for Democratic Change, whose leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, opposed Mr. Mugabe for the presidency in 2002 in what many observers say was a seriously flawed election.

Mr. Mugabe's Winning Strategy

The United States and Britain have condemned Mr. Mugabe and his policies, but Peter Kawanga with the independent International Crisis Group in Pretoria, South Africa says the Zimbabwean president successfully played the "race card" against what he portrays as colonial powers and their alleged interference in Zimbabwe's affairs.

"When Mugabe came under attack, Mugabe became an 'evil genius' by politicizing the land question. Instead of dealing prudently and legally, he turned it into the most important axis. He has won the day by pushing out white farmers," says Kawanga.

But the displaced farmers provided Zimbabwe not only with food, but also much-needed foreign currency by selling their crops on the world market. Now Zimbabwe has become a net food importer and a recipient of international aid.

Its overall economy is in a free fall. As a result, Zimbabwe's middle class has largely left for South Africa and other neighboring countries, leaving only the political elite surrounding Mr. Mugabe and a huge impoverished underclass that observers say he continues to distract.

The Mugabe Cult

Roberta Cohen at The Brookings Institution in Washington says a major reason why Robert Mugabe remains popular with some Zimbabweans and other Africans is that he has made himself the very symbol and image of his country.

"He's like a number of other African strongmen that don't want to accept opposition don't want to accept a democratic structure. He seems to have that same kind of megalomania that you see in some of these other countries. Little distinction is made between the country and the person," says Cohen.

While Mr. Mugabe's "father of Zimbabwe" self-portrayal has sustained a certain popularity for him, the increasing misery of many in that country may eventually lead to his revile. But many Zimbabwe-watchers say that so long as there are people who remember the anti-colonial struggle, Robert Mugabe will be seen by some as an African hero.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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