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The iron rule

The big idea In a shrinking world, Joshua Kurlantzick reports that the role of tyrants isn't.
Mugabe's moves: In an era of instant messaging and 24-hour news, it might seem anachronistic that one man so unloved can keep hold on power.
Mugabe's moves: In an era of instant messaging and 24-hour news, it might seem anachronistic that one man so unloved can keep hold on power.

In a shrinking world, Joshua Kurlantzick reports that the role of tyrants isn't.

Less than two decades ago Malawi was ruled by an ultraconservative autocrat, but today the tiny African nation revels in its freedom. At intersections in downtown Blantyre, the nation's largest city, kids hawk broadsheets full of breaking news. At the Ryalls Hotel, the poshest watering hole in town, local businessmen in crisp suits trade gossip about the latest political scandals in the capital. It seems hard to believe that just next door in Zimbabwe, a country historically far richer and more educated than Malawi, people scavenge for food, battle a cholera epidemic that threatens half the nation, suffer the second worst hyperinflation in world history - and still live under the disastrous, repressive rule of Robert Mugabe.

When the western press started noticing Zimbabwe's misrule in the late 1990s, as Mugabe started pushing white farmers off their land in earnest, it seemed that the country's crisis, incessantly covered on the BBC and exposed to global light, simply had to end. That was 10 years ago. Indeed, the old dictator has held power for so long - 29 years and counting - that some Zimbabweans have simply given up fighting: as Mugabe and opposition leaders meet this month to negotiate the country's future, many Zimbabweans urge the opposition to make any deal they can with Mugabe, even a bad one.

Yet Mugabe is hardly unique. In an era of instant messaging and immediate coverage of political events, it might seem anachronistic that one man so unloved can keep his grip on a country, or that a short plane flight from free Blantyre or Bangkok can bring you to a police state. But throughout the developing world, from Turkmenistan to Burma, men portrayed as uneducated, bizarre thugs in the media manage to consistently outmanoeuvre the world and their own people in order to stay in power.

Holed up in a remote, newly-built bunker capital, Burma's junta also seems as if it should not be able to survive. Whenever I interview western officials in Rangoon about the regime, they unfailingly mention the junta leader Than Shwe's reliance on astrology, or his near-total lack of formal education. ("I think he completed fourth grade, maybe," one diplomat sniggered to me.) When I met Burmese democracy activists in the wake of global, front-page coverage of stirring 2007 demonstrations by crimson-robed monks, they confidently insisted that the regime could never stay alive in the face of such global pressure.

Yet the junta always gets the last laugh. Holding power since 1962, it has, for all its lack of formal education, mastered the keys to modern-day dictatorship, surviving even in the face of a sophisticated opposition movement. It plays foreign powers off of each other, convincing China and India they both need Burma's petroleum - and that they must ignore its human rights abuses in order to get their hands on the black gold. It co-opts just enough powerful people within the country - key military officers, leading businessmen - that it can ignore the rest of Burma's nearly 60 million citizens. By occasionally engaging in a political dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it offers the West just enough carrots to keep observers believing the regime will finally open up. But the junta never really allows outside actors any power over the country's politics; when the dialogue with Suu Kyi threatens to turn serious, the junta tosses her under house arrest.

Other longtime dictators, like North Korea's Kim Jong-il, have learned to play a similar game. Kim routinely gives out hints to the West that he may abandon his nuclear programme and then wins aid and plaudits, only to back off at the last minute. But it is Mugabe who has proven the ultimate master of tenacity. Like the Burmese junta, Mugabe has learned the game of "just enough." To the West, Mugabe allows just enough political opening to make it seem like he might finally relent, which he never does. Last March, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change won a decisive victory, though not a majority, in national polls. Mugabe seemed open to allowing the opposition to gain real power for the first time. Western news outlets declared that change had finally come to Zimbabwe; some foolishly started writing the old man's obituary.

But since no party had won a majority, there was a runoff - which provided Mugabe with an opportunity to outmanoeuvre the opposition. First, he unleashed his thugs on followers of the MDC until the opposition party pulled out of the runoff election, citing the violence and irregularities. That was a moral stand; but with no opposition, Mugabe swept the poll, claiming he still had a mandate to lead for another five-year term as president. With his hand strengthened, the 84-year-old autocrat has since then dominated power-sharing talks with the MDC - talks that will ensure continued power for Mugabe.

For years Mugabe has played global and regional powers off of each other. To southern African leaders Mugabe emphasises his credentials as a revolutionary independence-fighter and inveighs against meddling by the West. This is a popular theme among regional leaders who themselves chafe at western criticism, such as former South African President Thabo Mbeki, a western target for his retrograde policies on HIV/Aids. (At the annual UN General Assembly meeting, Mugabe is usually good for a speech blasting the "imperialists", which wins some cheers in the hall.) Mugabe also knows that few of his African counterparts want to see outsiders question the cleanliness of their own electoral victories, which often leave much to be desired.

Even Mugabe's blatantly illegal seizure of land from white commercial farmers plays to his advantage in regional politics, because most of his neighbours face thorny land tenure issues of their own. Whites control huge quantities of land in South Africa, where the government has vowed land reform to help the poor but has been slow to implement it. Because land issues are so fraught, African leaders don't want to set a precedent by criticising another regime on that front.

Divided on Mugabe, southern Africa's leaders have proven unable to take a tough line, with Mbeki memorably declaring last year there was "no crisis" in Zimbabwe. (Botswana, the region's most successful democracy, is an exception; its leaders have called for sanctions and other sticks against Mugabe, only to be ignored in the region.) At regional summits, the man reviled in the West has been feted like a hero; Mugabe still enjoys the close support of leaders in Namibia and Angola, and for years the Southern African Development Community, a regional body, endorsed a policy of "quiet diplomacy" toward Harare - quietly tolerating Mugabe's misrule.

Even now, after countless abuses by Mugabe's regime over the past year, including the alleged killings of hundreds of opposition activists, the SADC has failed to produce a tough, unified stand. At a recent summit, it agreed only to promote a power-sharing deal between Mugabe and the opposition that would leave the dictator in control of the most important ministries and provide few security guarantees for MDC politicians, who are constantly threatened by government thugs.

After the summit, the MDC issued a statement saying that the results of the meeting fell "far short of our expectations". Or as MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai put it: This is "the darkest day of our lives." In any event, why should Mugabe sign a deal with the MDC at all? Officials from South Africa, Zimbabwe's economic lifeline and its major source of energy, have already hinted that even if he does not sign by the deal's mid-February deadline, Pretoria will not back sanctions against Mugabe.

Internally, Mugabe has learned that, even if most Zimbabweans starve and pile up the country's increasingly worthless currency, he only has to keep key players happy to stay in power. After protests last year by soldiers chafing at unpaid wages, Mugabe quietly ensured that the security forces would continue getting regular paydays. Like other successful autocrats, such as those in China, he has strategically distributed perks to prevent the emergence of a Boris Yeltsin or Fidel Ramos - a dissatisfied regime insider who throws in his lot with the opposition.

But perhaps the ultimate form of co-option is Mugabe's enlistment of thousands of his countrymen in his crimes. In Zimbabwe, young men have travelled the country pushing farmers off their land and taking it for themselves, or else attacking MDC activists. For these men, as for the army soldiers in Burma who have carried out the regime's brutal policies, any change in regime carries a thorny prospect of justice and retribution.

Next door in Malawi, many friends and acquaintances closely follow the Zimbabwe crisis, often the top story on the BBC. Malawi is a country that routinely faces famines, where the average male life expectancy is just 48 years; there, friends watch the self-inflicted breakdown of relatively wealthy Zimbabwe with a kind of disbelief. "Mugabe will never go," one Malawian friend told me. "No one can stop him."

Joshua Kurlantzick is the author of Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power is Transforming the World.

Updated: January 30, 2009 04:00 AM

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