Zimbabwe’s leader may not be Africa’s longest serving head of state (Angola and Brazzaville — I’m looking at you) but he sure is the oldest at 90. A lot of wisdom and cunning is right there, and in the absence of Robert Mugabe sharing this with us, we’ve drawn up a handy list you can stick on your AK-47 or inside your The Apprentice box set.
1. Master the enemy’s system
Bob went to Christian schools and progressed to university, becoming a teacher. He continued to study in prison and well into his presidency, garnering seven degrees and a languid speech, word perfect in its erudition. When he rails against Britain and the West he knows them so well, even on a first-name basis.
2. Have mentors in your field
At Fort Hare he consorted with Robert Sobukwe, Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere, and later with Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana — that’s an eighth degree in Revolutionary Diktat right there. The 20 century had a lot of these iconic revolutionary figures strolling around the same cities at the same time and one can only dream of their grandiose discussions in those worldly capitals — Paris, Vienna, Fort Hare.
3. Reconcile with thine enemies
Bob was jailed for ten years and he came out, well, guns blazing. Rhodesia was forced to the negotiating table and Bob was quite statesman-like in committing to a peaceful transfer of power and delaying land reform. Joshua Nkomo, his rival for the political leadership, was given posts in the government.
4. Crush thine enemies
Frustration after first few years of independence allowed Bob to consolidate his power, which he started by waging an internal war on Zapu. Like a sucker punch in the schoolyard, Bob extended his hand to Nkomo again and scored points for magnanimity as well as being Zimbabwe’s undisputed alpha male.
5. Avoid familiarity
Bob is never to be seen without a suit. A mutual friend told me five years ago he has the body of a man in his prime. He won’t flaunt that, though. He has also managed to be Africa’s longest serving dictator without a nickname. Unless you count Bob, which is a bingo citation for Hannah Arendt.
6. Have a weird thing.
Bob is irrational in his hatred of homosexuality. All of us have peccadilloes which is the socio-evolution reason why we have friends who can put out good PR and say “Oh that? Ignore that. It’s just his thing”. At some point it was believed to be part of a plan to divide his global enemies into a big straight gay smack-down; others say that he gained support from Uganda and other conservative African governments by taking up this diatribe. We remember strong leaders by their deeds and lesser leaders by their things — Bob is going down for this one.
7. Create something sustainable
Ask any Zimbabwean, or wait two minutes in their company, and they will tell you they have the highest literacy rate in Africa (just kidding, Zimbos — love ya). Between 80% and 90% is very high and it’s in no small part attributable to Bob having more degrees than a thermometer in Sutherland. It makes Zimbabweans, who are experiencing heavy net migration, attractive employees and there is an unintended consequence of that money flowing back into Zim by way of remittances. Establishing literacy is necessarily a long process, but not impossible as we see in Mugabeland.
8. Grab land
The legacy of farm invasions will forever attach itself to Bob. It awakens the brutal nightmare of the settler and the unpredictability of mob violence, as well as the economic destruction that follows. Emotions aside, the dispute between Zimbabwe and Britain was not resolved and the result has been disastrous for the country. Time, and international law, will put this in better focus. But Robert will hold the land and possession is a position you can only bargain advantageously from.
9. Never, ever, give up
The election of 2008 was lost to the MDC. The world knew it and Bob knew it. He also knew that a viable course of action is the anti-Nike method: Do Nothing. So he admitted to nothing and kept schtum for a couple of critical weeks until the MDC, frustrated, played the game his way. Then he won. He had the possession and he had the army and it was up to the others to stumble over their shoelaces.
10. Establish a Dynasty
If Maslow kept going, the final capstone of his pyramid would be this. Once all material things are taken care of and success and fame are beyond measure, then look at bestowing to your kin such wondrous gifts and words only gazed upon heretofore in the Old Testament.
Bob has been grooming Grace from the get-go in the ultimate exponent of “happy wife, happy life” thinking. It’s kept him from being superfluous around the house and he’ll avoid bumbling about irritating her once he’s retired.
These kinds of lists may seem gratuitous and self-serving in an internet traffic kind of way, but remember that from the beginning Zanu-PF was tight with the Maoists and their obligatory red books. Then they shipped over North Koreans to take care of their Matabeleland problem, and, well….North Korea has a litany of rules for a successful life. There could, conceivably, exist a book series in revolutionary tactics and a sideline in stonewashed camouflage shorts — something Bob could set up in his retirement.
History is likely to be more kind to Bob than we can imagine right now — we’re too close, being neighbours and all — and if it just manages to overlook the human rights abuses it may concede an approving wink for how he played the game.