Robin Hammond for The New York Times
By JOSHUA HAMMER
Published: March 25, 2011
Peter Godwin has carved out a niche as a skillful chronicler of politics and war in his native Zimbabwe. His 1996 memoir, “Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa,” was an affecting account of his coming-of-age in white-minority-ruled Rhodesia, where his father managed a factory and his mother, a physician, operated a rural health clinic. The story climaxed with the outbreak of the civil war that would bring the guerrilla leader Robert Mugabe to power — and with the accidental killing of Godwin’s elder sister by Rhodesian troops at a roadblock. “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa,”published in 2007, picked up the narrative with Mugabe’s evolution into a brutal dictator who stomped on the opposition, evicted thousands of white farmers in a violent land reform program and plunged his country into ruin. Now Godwin has written the third installment of what might be called his Zimbabwe trilogy. In “The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe,” he documents the 2008 presidential election and its aftermath, when Mugabe unleashed ruling-party militias in a savage campaign to keep his hold on power.
Godwin’s narrative begins with a moment of promise. It is early April 2008, and voters have just flocked to the polls to repudiate by an overwhelming margin Mugabe’s catastrophic rule. Eighty-four years old and in failing health, the dictator seems ready to concede defeat to the charismatic opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Godwin has rushed to Zimbabwe from his New York home “to dance on Robert Mugabe’s political grave.” “The crooked elections he has just held have spun out of his control, and after 28 years the world’s oldest leader is about to be toppled.” Days later, however, Mugabe and his circle launch a counterattack. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, controlled by the ruling party, flagrantly falsifies the vote count, forcing Tsvangirai into a second round. Foreign journalists are detained or chased from the country. (I reported on the election and left on April 1, just before the police raided the hotel where I’d been staying and arrested correspondents from The New York Times and The Daily Telegraph.) Then Mugabe loyalists begin hunting down, beating and killing supporters of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. Mugabe’s generals call it Operation “Who Did You Vote For?” Their henchmen have a less euphemistic name for their activity: Operation “Let Us Finish Them Off.”
What follows is a kind of wartime diary as Godwin — one of the few Western journalists then remaining in the country — travels from Harare to rural Zimbabwe (including his birthplace, Chimanimani), documenting the bloodshed. He visits hospitals overflowing with maimed, bludgeoned, burned victims. “Think of deep, bone-deep lacerations, of buttocks with no skin left on them, think of being flayed alive,” he writes of a torture method called falanga. “Think of swollen, broken feet, of people unable to stand, unable to sit, unable to lie on their backs because of the blinding pain.” In one of the most riveting sequences in “The Fear,” Godwin joins James McGee, the burly, no-nonsense American ambassador, on a fact-finding trip outside Harare. Confronted repeatedly by gun-toting policemen, militia members and intelligence agents, McGee bravely brushes them aside as he and his team gather evidence of torture and murder. (On this trip, Godwin wanders into a farmhouse used as a torture center by Mugabe’s hit teams and riffles through a notebook that documents interrogations and names people “who are to be beaten.”) Finally advised to leave the country for his own safety, he watches from New York as Tsvangirai withdraws from the June 27 runoff, saying he cannot participate in a “violent, illegitimate sham.”
But the story doesn’t end there. A few months later, Tsvangirai and Mugabe sign the so-called Global Political Agreement. Brokered under international pressure by the South African president Thabo Mbeki — who stood silently by as the murder count rose — the deal keeps Mugabe entrenched in power but forces him to install Tsvangirai as prime minister and turn over half the cabinet seats to members of the Movement for Democratic Change. Back in Zimbabwe to witness the inauguration of the new government, Godwin quickly realizes that the ruling party has no intention of upholding its end of the bargain. Godwin’s friend Roy Bennett, a white Shona-speaking ex-farmer and M.D.C. leader, beloved by his black constituents, returns from exile in South Africa to take up a junior cabinet post and is clapped into jail, held for weeks in frightful conditions. Tendai Biti, a courageous attorney and M.D.C. secretary general, survives his own incarceration on treason charges and reluctantly signs on as finance minister. “Here is Tendai,” Godwin writes, “trying to scrounge the money to pay for the bullets that were used against his own supporters in the last election.”
Unfortunately, Godwin’s book has a slapdash feel. It lacks the artful construction of “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun,” which set scenes of political violence against descriptions of the increasingly desperate circumstances of his aging parents. “The Fear” can read like a reporter’s notebook, a raw accounting of victims’ horror stories and random encounters with farmers, political activists and others touched by the violence. It’s also short on analysis. We never learn what motivates these mobs of ruling-party thugs, many of them so-called “war veterans” whom Mugabe previously recruited to expel white farmers from their property. And it’s never clear how active a role Mugabe is playing in “The Final Battle for Total Control,” as his campaign slogan calls it. Has the fading octogenarian ceded power to his generals and other insiders, who may be terrified at the prospect of being sent by an M.D.C.-led government to an international criminal tribunal? Or does he remain the “crocodile” — slow, yet still capable of extreme acts of violence? Godwin, alas, never gets close enough to Mugabe to find out.
Yet in the end these shortcomings fail to diminish the extraordinary power of Godwin’s narrative. The accretion of detail builds into a damning portrait of a regime that has lost all its moral bearings, a gang of thieves and murderers bent on holding power at any cost. The book draws to a close with the testimony of Emmanuel Chiroto, a Harare opposition leader whose campaign for mayor has brought down the wrath of Mugabe’s goons. Even as he is celebrating his victory, members of the youth militia set his house on fire and abduct his wife, Abigail, and 4-year-old son. The boy is released, but Abigail’s swollen and battered corpse is found in the morgue. “This is my lovely wife,” Chiroto tells Godwin, holding up a cellphone image of Abigail in her wedding dress. “And they killed her.” Three years after his defeat at the polls, Mugabe still clings to power in his ruined nation. But Godwin’s intrepid reportage has at least given voice to some of his victims.