Robert Mugabe, the nice guy

THE one question I am always pelted with from people who get to know that I work with President Mugabe, nay, articulate his views, is just how it feels, more accurately how it works out.

“Uri romo-romo remukuru wenyika kaiwe, unombozviita sei? You mean unenge wakagara apa, ivo apa, muchitotaura?” (You are the mouth of the President of the country; just how does it work out? You mean you sit here and he sits there – sit with him – and you actually talk?)

You see genuine disbelief, deep bemusement, mingling with swelling eagerness to find out just how a man who has become a legend or myth for many, a monster and gorgon for those whose world he has toppled – how this larger-than-life man comes down to interact with mortals in the work-a-day world, in order to discharge duties of the State.

The clear implication is that he cannot be of this world, an interlocutor to mere mortals.

I enjoy the question. Who wouldn’t?

It is a much-needed raisin to my ever wilting, dwindling ego.

Since birth, I have been a creature of small, mundane or pedestrian deeds and misdeeds. Nothing outstanding, nothing spectacular to my name, or to that of my clan.

I suppose the closest I got to the hemp of fame was when America put me on the fourth place in its first ever list of persons guilty of “posing a continuing, extraordinary threats to American interests”.

Before my name was that of Robert Gabriel Mugabe, followed by that of his wife, Grace Mugabe. After the First Couple came that of Stanslaus Mudenge, then Foreign Minister.

There may have been one or two more, I can’t quite recall. But I was well within the zone of the top three, four, at most five, most notorious men and women Zimbabwe had spawned, of course in the jaundiced eyes of America.

Then, America was too angry to be alphabetic, and gradation was by degree of “culpability”. The alphabet came much later in the sanctions saga, to push me a good many positions down the list. Who now remembers I was among the first to be charged by America?

This little fame I had stumbled upon, in my arduous search for glory, turned out to be short-lived, remarkably ephemeral. I largely remain a man of little acts, all with little staying power.

Once, I even beat the President in being “more guilty”, this time in the eyes of the French. The President was scheduled to attend the second or so-called France-Africa Summit in Paris.

As likely, the issue of sanctions and travel bans cropped up, whipped to shrillness by the British media, as always.

The French leadership did not want their Summit to flop, all against the potentially damning backdrop of a successful Commonwealth Summit still too fresh in the world’s memory. France’s tiff with Rwanda was a freshly opened wound, set to fester as President Kagame kept poking France’s already angry eyes. Already, he had turned Rwanda English speaking, away from the traditional French. No, France could not afford any sanctions-related controversy, sure to alienate most of Africa.

South Africa had already indicated it would not come if Zimbabwe was excluded. That was bad enough and France buckled. After all the whole sanctions argument was perfidious Albion’s, the same country pecking at her severely diminished colonial backyard.

The President got his visa, finally. So did everyone else set to accompany him. Except I, George Charamba. Quite amused at the turn of events, I walked up to the President with a clear heart to confront him: “Cde President, I haven’t got my visa to France. The French Embassy will not oblige,” hardly able to hold back laughter.

The Chief of Protocol, Cde Munyaradzi Kajese was on hand to underline the severity of the matter. He told the President everyone else’s visas were out, except raComrade Charamba.

At which point laughter just got the better of me, volubly shooting past my clenched teeth and lips, for a direct hit somewhere behind the Presidential desk.

“Comrade Charamba, you look amused?” “No sir, I mean to sound great, greater than the President of Zimbabwe. The French think I am guiltier than you are, you my boss and President! I thought all I do is to speak your mind, implement your policies? Sir, with due respect, you have enough reason to feel junior in my presence!”

It was only after a while of unrestrained laughter – President, Chief (of Protocol), Charamba alike – that we gathered ourselves once, composed enough to transact.

Since the President was to proceed to Malaysia from France, to attend the Langkawi International Dialogue, a decision was taken that I fly straight to Malaysia, well away from France. I tore off from the rest of the delegation, fame whirling in my tall head, ego puffed by brimming pride and triumph, partly against my President.

I had succeeded in upsetting mighty America, true together with the President. But in upsetting France I was alone, done it singlehandedly.

Let my scion and history take good note, I kept whispering to myself, all in gratuitous self-ravishment. For months that followed, I regaled myself with this sparse, inchoate glory!

As such incidental, frankly fortuitous greatness whirled and swelled my head, then comes this question of how I, George Charamba, manages to work with President Mugabe! I have committed this question to my mind as a pet-question, one that loyally serves me when I am in self-doubt.

Each time my ego is mauled or bruised, often by a reckless world which does not seem to know who I am, more accurately who I speak for, I trawl in the deep blue of my subconscious to fish out this delightful question. Who else can they ask such a question? Does the question itself not confirm a portion of my own greatness?

I delight myself that way, erecting mighty castles in thin dry air. Of course these curious Zimbabweans will not be marvelling at me. Rather, they are curious to know how a legend relates to mere mortals like me. Far from being a tribute to me, it is an oblique rebuke.

My minister and I have a duty to present the President to the public. Such a question means we have not done a good job, especially me! But that is an offence for another day, for another court. For now I must enjoy the flimsy glory I cull from the enquiry.

It is a very difficult question, to tell you the truth. The question has come repeatedly. I am still not able to answer it. Yet I have had the privilege of working with President Mugabe since 1988, more intensively since 1990 as Head of his small Press Unit, then Deputy Principal Private Secretary before going back to the Press Department, this time as its Director.

I grew in that seat until I doubled up as a Permanent Secretary and his spokesman, a duality that has since discomfited the Prime Minister and his party. All this means I have worked with the President for slightly over two decades, clearly his longest serving Press Secretary to date, possibly ever.

Still I find this simple question quite difficult, yet so important to address it. An honest and comprehensive answer to that question goes some significant way in constructing some small face to this multifaceted, most round, very rich character who been at the helm of our country since 1980, at the helm of Zimbabwean politics since 1960. But also a figure commanding intense curiosity, a figure whose real pith remains elusive to many writers of whatever motive.

Mugabe gazing has become the single largest preoccupation in opposition politics and diplomacy. So too is Mugabe-bashing, all of it founded on ill-clad malice so brazen so obvious to pass for bona fide mischaracterisation by those searching for a difficult truth.

One classical case of such malice is Heidi Holland’s “Dinner with Mugabe”, a book which has turned out to be such an a propaganda runaway, yet such an atrocious lie, so well written by some old, bitter white Rhodesian girl whose deeply-ingrained racist contempt for Africans, clawed to a plinth of respectability once Robert Mugabe did a few good things for his long-denied people, thereby making the white man weep.

People get surprised when I tell them the President was interviewed well after the book had been written; that he was a postscript to his portrait by a woman already working for the embittered British, with the angry Rhodesians, with the eager MDC-T, all to lay propaganda material just ahead of the March 2008 harmonised polls. Which is why his not-so-long interview with the girl, one granted after so much reluctance, was taken not to the printers, but to people in London who claimed to be experts in psychoanalysis, all to validate a mythic monster with which they want history to replace the flesh-and-blood Robert Mugabe.

Thankfully, that interview is available, and shall one day play, clearly showing the man he could never be.

While some Mugabe watchers turn him into a monster, others graft onto him acute vulnerability. He is depicted as a hapless “kid” who is so vulnerable as to require collective gentle cradling. Or worse, a leader who does not know, who is misled and smothered by a parapet of official duplicity. That, too, is another variant to the same myth of vulnerability.

I have always thought the President often brings that upon himself. To see his small frame curled in one corner of a remarkably standard chair – his small, well sculpted head slightly fallen back – is to get a picture of a “small” hurdled in an ever diminishing corner, unsure and all alone, against an engulfing danger.

That impression is reinforced by his one remarkable attribute which can also be a source of official frustration when the tempo of politics picks up and menacingly speeds off as if a real runaway. You want him to say something; you want him to do something, quickly too, so he puts to an abrupt stop the inauspicious. This abiding attribute is one of being very slow to anger, of being deliberate, of wanting to get to the truth first before deciding on a course of action.

More accurately, it is self-caution against acting harshly on a mere whim, as opposed to a condemnable character. A long-time teacher, a commander, a skilful negotiator, a husband, a father, a Catholic, he has met humanity in its diverse frailties.

Many mistake this attribute of the President to a lack of knowledge or appreciation of what dangers he might be, his Party of Government might be. They are dead wrong, the same way I was for a long time. He can look detached, even oblivious to developments around him, while actively taking in the outrage, understanding it before finally taking a position. And once he does, the game is over.

I must confess that trait used to baffle, even frustrate me too. Often it levied much from his fame and popularity, as happened when the Willowvale Motor Industries’ so-called car scandal broke out in 1988. The expectation in the country was that the President would act swiftly and decisively against the so-called malfeasance, against the so-called wrongdoers, however mighty, however close.

You read me right. I am not convinced that our society ever quite understood what the real offence in this matter was. The word “corrupt” was a convenient shorthand to all that we could not quite pin down. Few, very few of the so-called wrongdoers actually derived any pecuniary benefits from the whole matter. Fame maybe, better regard from all those they helped, friends, relatives and in some few cases, close associates included. Yet in the majority of cases, no huge and direct financial benefits.

Their real crime was that they had failed the onerous code of a pre-commercial society where vehicles were still status markers, never utilities to be taken for granted. This is why this country will never have another Willogate, another Geoff Nyarota.

Interestingly, the one person who challenged the President on this very matter was Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister then, who could not understand why the President was destabilising his own government. “Robert, what you are terming corruption, which really is speculation, happens in my country every day, with my ministers taking part every day. I would have to fire my whole government if I were to go by your moral standard Mr President. Why are you rocking your government, Robert?” Words to that effect. She was genuinely concerned.

The waters got murkier when the President decided on setting up an inquiry under Justice Sandura. Fingered members from his still “juvenile” Cabinet – man and women who were coming into something called government for the first time, all of them from jails, universities, or from the war – who barely knew how to behave in a court of a formal inquiry, simply self-indicted, either through ignorance or simply through tactless arrogance of a reviled people who never quite grasped what was going on around them.

Interestingly, the second such inquiry on gratuities [war victims compensation] which then happened much later into Independence, much later into experience, produced a less dramatic verdict. Did this society not judge its mildly wayward children too harshly?

Be that as it may, the inquiry dragged on and on, all the time providing drama of its own. As a fresher from college working under the President, I did not quite understand what was going on. But I could feel the strains as the already taut system daily got a new tag and another stretch. It simply became unbearable, and then worse.

The President started dropping affected ministers, with tragic consequences in one, very visible instance. Overcome by extreme guilt, Cde Maurice Nyagumbo took his life. Still the inquiry went on, followed by remedial actions. More ministers fell. The feral media smelt blood and sought more victims.

One Monday, the President’s briefing team congregated at State House for a routine briefing session. Or so we all thought. I was the youngest member in a team that comprised Dr Charles Utete, then Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet; Dr Elleck Mashingaidze, then Secretary for Foreign Affairs, later to become Director General of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO); the late Cde Edison Shirihuri, then Deputy Director General of CIO.

I stood in for the head of the Presidential Press Unit, Lindiwe Sadza, daughter to a well-known physician, now in retirement. I had just summarised the latest developments on the “Willowgate” case, ironically to a man who was a principal actor in the matter.

“Aa-ah Shefu ngazvichipera izvi. Zvanyanya kani. Chistoppai izvi Shefu.” Words wrapped in agony, all along suppressed, all along mounting. The utterer was Dr Mashingaidze, the only one from the group who had accumulated enough outrage, or plucked enough courage to openly confront the President on the matter. He now stays in Bulawayo, now a widower battling failing eyesight. I wonder whether he still recalls that day.

“The process will continue and remedial action has to be taken-ka, Dr Mashingaidze,” came the answer, in an amazingly calm and richly intoned voice.

“Shefu, how far do you want to go? Zvakwana kani shefu. Mavakudestabiliza system. Mavakuwuraya party kani Shefu.”

It was a profound plea coming from a man of trusted, mature judgement. Apart from this problem, Zimbabwe faced a hostile neighbour to the south of us. Apartheid South Africa was really enjoying this one, diligently fishing in already troubled waters. Was this not evidence that Africans were not ready for self-rule. Is this what these terrorists planting bombs in South Africa wanted for the great country? Both Bothas were hard at work, and the Secretary for Foreign Affairs was right.

All the eyes trained on the President, who did not need a sangoma to know that we all threw the weight of our collective judgement behind Dr Mashingaidze. “Sure, the Party is stretched, but you finish this one, and you start to reorganise yourselves, to reorganise the Party.” We got our answer, with enough tonal cues to warn us that the President would not budge on this one matter. An unsolicited bonus from a determined President! What followed is all recorded in history.

As a young officer, I had the bliss of refuge. There was Dr Utete – my boss – at the top. Mine was not to be worried. Someone else was paid to take all the worry, and on that fateful Monday, their assignment had fallen due! And beyond Dr Utete was the President himself – a man who had fought and won a war. Surely Willowgate would be a stroll in the green garden. I bet I was the first to liberate my person from the agony of Willowgate. Even feeling reckless about it too!

Many, many years later, at another briefing. Save for Dr Utete and myself, the rest of the faces had changed, partly because of redeployment, illness or sadly, by mortality. In the CIO seat sat Cde Shadreck Chipanga, now a parliamentarian from Manicaland. Representing Foreign Affairs was Dr Tichaona Jokonya, or TJB as we popularly called him, then its Permanent Secretary. TJB would later bounce back as my Minister of Information and Publicity, after Professor Jonathan Moyo. He had won the Chikomba seat in the preceding 2005 election.

A long and well experienced senior diplomat, Dr Jokonya simply was huge intellect, that kind of boss in whose glory you luxuriated, in whose stupendous intellect you flourished. Together with Dr Utete and Dr Mashingaidze, you felt like the proverbial round-based clay pot, so securely sat on all three! With the arrival of Dr Misheck Sibanda later, the stability simply became formidable. I had little to worry, a surfeit of quality internship.

For Dr Jokonya, that morning had started normally, the sun as usual peeping at the world from the East. But Dr Jokonya had not the slightest presentiment on what Providence had written into his day, that Monday. As before, we gathered at State House, ready to deliver to the President our offerings for the day. That too was done with no incident, done uneventfully.

As per tradition, administrative issues came last and the first one to raise such matters was TJB. Accompanying him was a clean, red-ribboned set of papers which told anyone old enough in the game of government that the President’s signature was about to be asked for, and hopefully granted. All of us who have worked with the man know only too well that you do not take his “imprimatur” for granted. He is a tough customer, quite thorough and even fastidious to some. Not for me. That has always been the aspect of him I cherish most, I have profited the most from. His exacting standards then become my personal benchmark, in my search for elusive excellence. But that is to digress.

Dr Jokonya walked up to the President’s desk and in no time asked for the President’s signature to a set of papers whose arrangements pointed to weighty matters of State. He did more. He isolated the page on which the President would append his signature. If he was a junior officer, one with soaring ambitions, I would have added that he sought to bring an unasked for convenience to the President, all in the hope of some indeterminate favour in an uncertain future.

But TJB had seen it all, done it all. He had little more to look forward to. He was just being helpful. Therein lay the problem that would change the colour of his whole day.

“Cde President, if we could get your signature apa, Sir,” requested the good doctor. To which request the President responded by indifferently leafing through the document about to be signed, page by page, pouring over the contents of each page.

“Shefu, tinokumbiraiwo signature yenyu apa,” cut in the good doctor, seemingly proffering benign advice to a Head of State who did not have to bother himself with details, but who sat there, equanimously, seemingly deaf to helpful solicitations from a dutiful senior officer.

Still the President continued leafing through the document, remarkably opaque and staid.

“Cde President, it is just your signature we require here, on this page I have isolated. Kumwe kwese hakuna basa.”

You could not miss the strain of frustration in Dr Jokonya, possibly frustration arising from self-importance. Here was a man who had been many things in the Service and for long, right from the first day of our Independence. Why wouldn’t the President trust his drafting skills? Why? And all this disgruntlement on a personality well known for haughty impudence! He felt slighted by Gushungo’s “fastidiousness”.

Another page flips. “Gushungo, sainai apa chete!”

In calmer, ordinary times, TJB’s forehead always bore habitual wrinkles, creases. But their permanence had made them such a part of him that they threatened no-one. In any case, there was always this infectious laughter to dispel any doubts, to reassure the mistaken. But by this time, the forehead wrinkled less from habit, more from impotent anger. What then followed will forever remain etched on my mind, right through to the grave.

“Dr Jokonya, my name is Robert Mugabe; not Robot Mugabe! Do you hear? I swear by my mother Bona. She never meant my name to be spelt out in any other way, let alone that my behaviour took after a robot. Do you understand!”

The briefing semi-circle simply snapped as each one of us fell over available space, all in utterly uncontrollable laughter. Not even TJB, himself the butt of that memorable light-hearted Presidential rebuke, could help himself, could save his own ribs from vibrating up and down, nay, from quivering with reckless laughter.

By the time we all recovered, the President had finished signing the document, and sedately sat in his chair, chin doubly supported by his veinous palms, and ready for the next item. After that most “mortal” blunder, we all knew how not to hurry the President of Zimbabwe.

Years later, TJB would accord me the dubious honour of being among the first three persons to see his cold and still body curled in a water-full tub, as if wrapped in the kindly waters of the womb – in a suite at a local hotel, stony dead. He had fatally dozed off in his bath, fatefully turned in his sleep as the temperature in the bath tub gradually fell. That turn to sleep by his side, fatally proved his last. He drowned. He lies at the National Heroes Acre, among fellow comrades who have done so much for this seemingly thankless, forgetful Nation.

My own fate would arrive sooner. But mine was infinitely more humane, less taxing than that suffered by my seniors. Another briefing session this time at Zimbabwe House, the President’s home offices. That morning we had picked a story on an extremely angry Brother Leader, Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader. He had just taken his country out of the Arab League, all in deep anger.

His colleagues in the Arab League had failed him, betrayed him even. They had let down the Palestinian people. They had cut deals with Zionist Israel, in his mind the archetypal evil for all Arabs. The Arabs had zipped their mouths, kept mum while his country was being wrecked by sanctions over the Lockerbie issue. And when he had completed his great man-made river – a reference to a massive, interminable pipe stretching across vast desert sand, all to cart water across the desert, to turn Libya green, to slack Libyan thirst. This massive project had been completed at great cost, all under conditions of crippling sanctions. Besides, it was an engineering feat, a real marvel to watch. Yet no Arab cheer had been forthcoming to celebrate this loud symbol of Arab indomitableness.

Worse had happened too. The Americans had tried to assassinate him using missiles and fighter jets. Luckily he had escaped, barely, but not without losing a son in that act of naked and deadly American aggression still to be atoned for to this day. Surprisingly, no Arab protests. Only feeble statements of solidarity, even then tendered through nightly whispers. The Arab world would not go to war, much to the Brother Leader’s chagrin.

On sanctions it was Africa – not the Arab League – which had taken a leading role, Africa led by President Mugabe. The President had flown to the United States to tell the Americans and their Europeans sanctions against Libya had to be lifted, or else Africa would breach them in solidarity with Libya. The first line of that breach would be to fly African airlines to Libya, and dare the Americans to shoot down the planes. America buckled. Europe buckled and in no time, the sanctions were removed. That reinforced Africa’s affinities with Libya, or the corollary, alienated the Brother Leader from the Arab League.

“For far too long, I have been barking towards the desert. No one heard me. I now turn to Africa, my home,” the brother leader proclaimed, building great poetry on the grandeur of Africa, great diatribe on the iniquity of imperial Europe and Satanic America.

Then came the bit which really got me, and which I felt the President could not miss. “Europe steals from Africa all the time, starting with stealing our history, our lofty achievements,” added the Colonel. “Shakespeare was an Arab, a great Arab bard.”

This was just too much and the President had to hear this claim from his own brother. So that morning, I read out to the President an extract from Gaddafi’s speech, including the piece on Shakespeare. The President rocked his chair in great laughter. We joined him, but for a short stretch of the laughter, thinking this was a short chuckle, itself a fitting tribute to a maverick politician, a much wronged and angry African leader seeking to even it out with the imperialists.

The President kept laughing, his laughter self-feeding with each peel. We all wondered. The President had laughed for far too long. What was going on?

“Sheikh-speare!”

Aa-ah the house came down!

“An Arab bard indeed!”

He left us laughing uproariously, as he quietly went back to signing a pile of papers. By the time we recovered, he was through, waiting for us.

To work with the President can be great fun. You meet a legend who is so ordinary, a myth which is so human.

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