Copyright The New York Times
April 1, 2008
WHILE Zimbabweâ€šÃ„Ã´s opposition party is claiming victory in its effort to unseat President Robert G. Mugabe, it would be a mistake to count him out. And if Mr. Mugabe prevails, it would be a mistake to continue to isolate him, as Western governments have done for the last decade.
Mr. Mugabe is bad, but he could get worse.
â€šÃ„ÃºMy granny was a heathen,â€šÃ„Ã¹ Mr. Mugabe muttered from behind his big wooden desk at his office in Harare, the capital. It was not the sort of comment I had expected to hear from the 84-year-old dictator, but during our 2 Â¬Î©-hour interview late last year, some of my assumptions about the most enigmatic figure in modern Africa were crumbling.
As soon as I entered the room I realized that the awkward man wearing a finely stitched white shirt and an elegant dark suit was apprehensive of me, just as I was of him. Mr. Mugabe stared hard, and then cleared his throat nervously. I had expected to meet someone exuding power â€šÃ„Ã® an older version of the steely freedom fighter I encountered over a secret dinner at my home 30 years ago.
Instead I saw a mild and diminished figure, his rumbling but faint voice often barely audible, his head at times lolling forward self-consciously as if he wanted to hide away. As the interview progressed, he slumped and then slid down like a gangly teenager in his threadbare swivel chair, his long limbs dangling. What I eventually realized from Mr. Mugabeâ€šÃ„Ã´s earnest efforts to justify his actions to me was that he is more vulnerable than his outlandish public posturing suggests.
Certainly, Mr. Mugabe is no feeble recluse â€šÃ„Ã® we have seen him campaigning with sudden bursts of vigor at staged rallies before busloads of supporters of the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front â€šÃ„Ã® yet he almost never grants interviews to journalists. To obtain mine took two years of requests, the persistent intervention of Mr. Mugabeâ€šÃ„Ã´s priest and then a five-week wait in Harare.
Early on I had assumed that he was too busy to spare the time. Only later did it dawn on me that he might be fearful of the independent press.
That fear is understandable. Zimbabweâ€šÃ„Ã´s once booming economy is in tatters. Inflation has soared to fantastical levels, unemployment is near universal, starvation looms. And Mr. Mugabe, for all his protestations about the wicked West and for all the sycophantic comments from the yes-men who surround him, must know that he is to blame.
So why talk about his heathen grandmother? I wanted to understand the Robert Mugabe who had been obscured amid the chaos and misrule. The one described by his classmates as shy, bookish, a loner deeply attached to his mother and resentful of his absent father. The one who was at first remarkably forgiving of white landowners when he came to power in 1980. (For instance, Mr. Mugabe allowed his predecessor, Ian Smith, who led the white minority government that ran Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was known, to live on in Harare without harassment, even when Mr. Smith embarked on a campaign against him.)
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Copyright The New York Times