Mugabe’s Military Might

The southern African country of Zimbabwe is home to one of the world’s longest-serving elected leaders, Robert Mugabe. At 92 and quickly approaching the end of his “president for life” term, Mugabe was elected prime minister in 1980 and has managed to hold on to power to this day. Such a long tenure, however, does not come without some figurative bumps in the road. Mugabe has used Zimbabwe’s military as a means of enforcing his rule since his first bloody years as head of state, and he has found use for them as recently as last year. Such extreme use of a military group with an aim to preserve and embellish the existing government seems gang-like, and the main reason that Mugabe has maintained power for so long.

When the British colony of Rhodesia declared its independence in 1970, the party in power represented the country’s white minority, a minuscule fraction of the 98% black African population. Two major opposition parties came to the fore, one (the Zimbabwe African National Union) led by Robert Mugabe. Mugabe won in an overall landslide, but was still concerned with his party’s natural rivalry with the other opposition party, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union. Much of Mugabe’s support had come from his own Shona-speaking north, while ZAPU’s leader, Joshua Nkomo, hailed from the Ndebele-speaking south. To stifle any possible dissent, Mugabe dispatched an elite, North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade which massacred as many as 20,000 members of the Ndebele community and viciously fought any resistance that cropped up in the region from 1983 to 1987. This large-scale atrocity occurred in order to enforce Mugabe’s new power and ensure that nothing stood in his way of government control. The Fifth Brigade, which answered directly to Mugabe, served as a personal military group—much like a gang—to ruthlessly ensure superiority.

In more recent times, the military’s presence in government affairs indicates how heavily Mugabe relies on it for his personal gain. In 2008, due to Zimbabwe’s disastrous economic situation, analysts estimated that Mugabe would face great difficulty in securing himself another term. His opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the first round of voting, 49% to 42%. After these statistics were released to the public, things got violent. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party threatened to kill supporters of Tsvangirai and viciously beat thousands through the use of Zimbabwe’s military, forcing Tsvangirai to step out of the second round of voting. Further, during the time when it seemed that Tsvangirai could possibly have been the new president, a small group of military officers loyal to Mugabe briefly took control over the country. The message Mugabe sent to his country’s citizens was clear: vote ZANU-PF or die. This brutality, which led to thousands being forcibly removed from their homes, is further evidence of behavior common in gangs. In the 2008 elections, Mugabe used violence and incited fear to force the common people to do his bidding.

Since Robert Mugabe was first elected, he has exercised his power in Zimbabwe with an iron fist through its military. His first years in office, defined by the massacre of a rival ethnic group, served as prime example of what a leader can  do given enough control over the military. He becomes a sort of gang leader, ordering an organized group of violent cronies to do his bidding and to ensure the stability of his power. The 92 year old Mugabe’s reign finally nears its an end, as his health continues to decline and more and more individuals voice their opposition to him and their hope for a bright future of Zimbabwe. At this point, Mugabe’s iron grip seems to be loosening, as military officials are starting to join with his opponents. This can only come with knowledge of his approaching death, however, and does not detract from the fact that Mugabe has ruthlessly ruled Zimbabwe with a gang that has served its leader well.

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