Make Peace With Mugabe

While Zimbabwe’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.

“My granny was a heathen,” 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 ½-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 — 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. Mugabe’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 — 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 — yet he almost never grants interviews to journalists. To obtain mine took two years of requests, the persistent intervention of Mr. Mugabe’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. Zimbabwe’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.)

But bitterness had clearly welled up within him. When I first met him at that dinner in 1975, he seemed to be a considerate man, asking after the health of my toddler son even as he fled into exile to a neighboring country shortly afterward. By the end of 2007, as we sat together again after 28 years of his rule, he exuded the air of a lost and angry man.

Why? Part of the answer came to me in our interview, as Mr. Mugabe expressed almost tearful regret at his inability to socialize with the queen of England. He feels that the West — and Britain in particular — has failed to recognize his “suffering and sacrifice.” As someone who by his own estimation is part British, this rejection has taken on the intensity of a family quarrel.

Much of the quarrel centers on the vexed issue of land redistribution. As part of the pact that created Zimbabwe’s independence, Britain promised financial aid to help the young country redistribute land from white farmers to blacks.

When this money was misused, the British government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher began to withhold it. Mrs. Thatcher’s successor, John Major, agreed to restore the money. But before he could do so, his successor, Tony Blair, reversed course, taking the aid off the table, where it remains today. It is this grievance against Britain for short-changing him on the land redistribution issue that Mr. Mugabe craves understanding.

I left Mr. Mugabe’s office with an uneasy sense of the futility of the West’s punitive diplomacy toward him. It was my feeling that he was going to stop at nothing to prove that he had been wronged. Indeed, he told me that he was prepared to sacrifice the welfare of his country to prove his case against Britain.

That a precariously balanced individual like Mr. Mugabe is in charge of a country and willing to destroy it to score points against an enemy is a tragedy in itself. That he has an arguably justifiable complaint against a major Western power — namely the repudiation of the land reform pledge — is doubtless an embarrassment in the West. But that Britain and others choose to shun Mr. Mugabe rather than attempt to settle these differences is quite frankly reckless.

The West needs to change its approach to Mr. Mugabe. Years of isolation and ineffective sanctions, with which he has fueled his propaganda campaign, have only driven Mr. Mugabe downward. More of the same will backfire. A strategy of engagement — whether Mr. Mugabe wins re-election and stays in office or whether he achieves his ends through fraudulent means and needs to be talked out of power — is the only viable option.

The belief that the situation in Zimbabwe cannot get worse has proved an inadequate strategy for ending the country’s plight under Mr. Mugabe. More important, the current Western standoff might in itself imperil Zimbabwe as things go from bad to worse and as Zimbabwe’s president becomes a great deal nastier. Every effort should be made internationally to set up a conversation with the dictator.

Heidi Holland, journalist and author of the biography Robert Mugabe Dinner with Mugabe.

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