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Mugabe’s rule is icily calibrated

Dixon is a Times staff writer.

For a very literal example of Robert Mugabe’s staying power, look no further than a recent crisis summit of southern African leaders designed to settle the political impasse that has seen the longtime Zimbabwean leader stubbornly cling to the presidency.

The leaders wanted him to leave the room so they could deliberate in private. He refused.

Between their misguided politeness and his famous capacity to intimidate, the presidents meekly backed down. Mugabe stayed.

Be it with his fellow African leaders, the West or the Zimbabwean opposition, the 84-year-old Mugabe has outmaneuvered -- and outlasted -- his critics for more than a quarter of a century, through a careful calibration of the international reaction to and domestic effect of his actions. As close as the end sometimes seems, Mugabe has managed to survive.

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To help understand his staying power, one need only rewind to the 1980s and the massacres of his early years in power, when he was a conquering hero who had thrown out the white minority regime of Ian Smith.

The name of the murderous operation, Gukurahundi, was as lyrical as a haiku: the wind that blows away the chaff before the spring rains.

Mugabe’s political opponents were the chaff. The spring rains were supposed to signify the golden era of a one-party state (or rather, a one-man state).

Western leaders and news media ignored the massacres of the “dissidents” by the army’s crack Five Brigade in Matabeleland province in southern Zimbabwe. Some estimates put the dead at 20,000.

Mugabe drew his most important lesson from the West’s blase reaction, analysts believe: that there’s a level of “acceptable” violence that will escape international condemnation, but still destroy any threat to his power.

“He’s never, ever been frightened of war,” said analyst Tony Reeler of the Research & Advocacy Unit, an independent think tank in Harare, the capital. Mugabe learned that he could get away with “subliminal terror” that would not trigger international intervention, he said.

“It’s just below the threshold that upsets people, and it’s deliberately so,” he said.

“Deliberate” is a word that defines Mugabe. Bony and severe, he is a teetotaler who freezes debate in Cabinet sessions with silence, former associates say.

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His family history may help explain his chilly, calculating nature. His father abandoned the family after the death of Mugabe’s older brother, the father’s favorite. His mother was a strict, pious woman who believed that God had great plans for her son, a bookish loner with no real friends, after a Jesuit priest at the local school said the boy was destined to be a leader.

His destiny proved to be a ruthless one.

The shadow of the Gukurahundi campaign has haunted Zimbabwe since the early 1980s. Mugabe repeatedly revived its message that opponents would be killed or tortured. But those who felt the rushing “wind” that was Gukurahundi needed no reminding.

“It’s painful to remember. It’s a story told in blood,” said a 61-year-old retired military officer who was attached to the Five Brigade when the unit “cleansed” villages in 1982, arresting the men, interrogating and torturing them to identify opposition guerrillas. Like others cited in this report, he spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions.

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He said he saw thousands of people killed. Women were shut into thatched huts and burned alive. Even the children were targets.

“They would take these young boys about a year old and they would say, ‘This one will grow up to be a dissident,’ and they would smash his head against a tree, or against a wall, or against the ground.”

Others who were behind Gukurahundi are now among Mugabe’s closest and most trusted allies.

Emerson Mnangagwa was head of security when the massacres started and is now Mugabe’s heir apparent. He was succeeded as security chief in the 1980s by Sydney Sekeremayi, now defense minister. The Five Brigade was commanded by Perence Shiri, the current air force commander.

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Like Mugabe, all are obsessed with hanging on to their assets and avoiding prosecution. Their only guarantee of that is clinging to power.

Mugabe has rekindled the terror whenever he has perceived a political threat. He unleashed violence in elections in 2000 and 2002 after the rise of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. He seized land from white farmers beginning in 2000 because many supported the MDC. In 2005, he launched Murambatsvina, or Operation Clean Out the Filth, evicting 700,000 urban people in MDC strongholds from their homes.

With every operation, he grew less popular among the people -- but more feared. It seemed that he no longer could distinguish between the two.

On election day in March of this year, Mugabe affected the air of a leader so popular that he needn’t concern himself with the opposition. He had shown extraordinary energy in the campaign, blitzing several rallies a day clad in his favorite election garb: a peaked cap and a yellow, lime green or red suit decorated with his own grinning face.

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“Why should I cheat?” he said, fixing the camera with a beady eye after casting his vote. “The people are there supporting us, day in, day out. The moment people stop supporting you, then that’s the moment you should quit politics.”

After his shocking defeat by MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the first-round presidential vote, he blamed traitors in his ZANU-PF party, according to several party sources. Enraged, he accused top ZANU-PF figures of “de-campaigning,” or campaigning against him.

ZANU-PF is now so deeply divided that many would prefer Tsvangirai to Mugabe, according to a senior party official. The president could face a resolution at the annual party conference this week forcing him to retire by the end of next year.

But Mugabe is cunning in the face of setbacks. After the March election upset, he told military and ruling party leaders that he was ready to step down, according to numerous party sources. “It was done strategically,” a ZANU-PF insider said. “It was to jolt people into action, and it had the desired effect. There was a lot of lethargy and despondency in the party at the time, and people thought Tsvangirai was coming in. Mugabe told some people he was willing to concede defeat and this jolted them into action.

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“These are people who depend on Mugabe for their own political existence. Without Mugabe, they’re nothing. They realized they could not afford to let Mugabe concede, for their own reasons.”

So, in the most recent echo of Gukurahundi, the military and war veterans recruited youthful militants and set up hundreds of militia bases, beating thousands of MDC supporters, burning their houses and torturing and killing opposition activists. At least 180 people died, though the figure could be higher because much of the violence occurred in remote rural areas out of sight of human rights groups and journalists.

Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round in June because of the violence, and African observers condemned the result.

After his electoral setbacks, Mugabe initially seemed like a badly mauled lion, unlikely to survive a night of circling hyenas. In July, when he was trapped by TV cameras at an African Union conference in Cairo, video of his rattled, seething responses surfaced almost instantly on YouTube.

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Yet since then, he has pulled back from the brink and, amazingly, remains in power, still recognized as president by African leaders despite his lack of a legitimate mandate.

Even opponents grudgingly concede that it has been a masterful recovery. Mugabe has taken advantage of the jumble of motives among ZANU-PF figures, buying loyalty by doling out rewards such as farms and benefits. None of them is clean, so all feel vulnerable.

“There are some people who are just in it for the money and other people who might fear retribution if the opposition party comes into power. There are some people who believe that for ideological reasons Mugabe is the best person to lead the country. And you have other people steeped in the liberation struggle who don’t believe they can let ZANU-PF decline,” said the ZANU-PF insider. “You have a mixed bag of people with the same goal.”

Southern African leaders meeting as the Southern African Development Community have the job of settling the crisis, but Mugabe has cleverly played on the feelings of the old boys’ club of African liberation movements, most of which see the rise of a strong opposition as an unwelcome precedent in the region.

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“He’s managed to get SADC to endorse his position,” the ZANU-PF insider said. “There’s still this belief at all costs that liberation movements cannot be replaced.”

Many analysts believe the regime is dying. But it’s all in slow motion, like a protracted death scene in a bad movie.

The victims of the Gukurahundi campaign are waiting.

Solomon Nsingo’s wife was bayoneted to death by the Five Brigade in front of the couple’s four children.

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“I think about her all the time,” he said, “at night and in the day.”

He wants Mugabe to pay. “He killed my wife. How can I ever forgive him for that?”

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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