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Zimbabwean Author On Mugabe's Quest To Hold On To Power


Peter Godwin is a Zimbabwean who's covered his country for years and written books about it. He's seeing this election to some extent through the prism of what happened in the last one and he's skeptical about its outcome. He joined us in our studio to talk about it. Welcome to the program.

PETER GODWIN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Now, you write about Zimbabwe's last election in 2008 in your book "The Fear," which had a lot to do with the last election and the post-election world of Zimbabwe. You went home for that vote, as you put it, expecting to dance on Robert Mugabe's political grave. How has he managed to stay in power 33 years?

GODWIN: He's the great survivor, isn't he? He's about to turn 90 in February. Independent Zimbabwe has known no other leader. He's been written off countless times by various political prognosticators, including myself. And there he is, still in fine fettle - looks extraordinary for 89, I have to say. He does have the feel this time of being a president emeritus, insofar as he is slowing down. But he still looks pretty fit, I have to say, for that age.

MONTAGNE: Well, one thing about Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe is that, especially in this last decade - a little more than a decade - it has really crashed economically, terrible inflation. Tell us how bad it got.

GODWIN: So Zimbabwe's most recent dive - and it really was a precipitous dive into failed statehood - happened around 2000. It was precipitated by a bunch of things. I mean there was over-budgeting. They spent money they didn't have. They then went in and took over all the white-owned farms and as a result agriculture collapsed. And the Zimbabwe dollar went into this extraordinary hyper-inflationary spiral. It got so bad in the end that the Zimbabwe dollar was off halving in value every 24 hours.

They used to say at the main golf course in Harare, where the pub was called the 19th Hole, that you had to order your drinks before you teed off because they'd have gone up in price by the time you got back.

I mean it was really - it was extraordinary and it mentioned that the average lifespan plummeted right down into the 30s. And Zimbabwe that had been this economic miracle, that everybody quoted as being the success story of Africa, pretty much overnight crashed and burned into this basket case. It was quite extraordinary.

MONTAGNE: What about this election? If Mugabe does lose, will he go quietly?

GODWIN: Well, that's the big question. I mean last time Tsvangirai clearly won conclusively the first round. And there was this absolutely intoxicating sort of three or four days where that election result, the first one, wasn't announced, where Mugabe basically sat in conclave to try and decide what to do. And there was clear evidence in those few days that he was considering leaving.

And the thing is that he's got all of these generals and people around him. You must understand that the Zimbabwe government under Mugabe is increasingly militarized. You may see men in suits in the cabinet, but actually, you know, to a great degree this is a military junta. And they came to the conclusion that they couldn't leave power. For one thing, they've got a lot to answer for in terms of violence, and there wasn't really an opportunity to figure out a soft landing. And after four or five days, they decided that wasn't going to happen.

Now, I don't think we're going to be in that situation again. I don't think that they would conceive of losing power.

MONTAGNE: So it's not just Robert Mugabe. It's the party and those around him who have supported him and he's supported them. But he is 89 years old. Even if he wins, what are the chances that he'll make it to the end of his term? And what would that mean?

GODWIN: Well, the chances - I mean, you know, he's 89 and could well die in office. I mean there has inevitably been succession discussions and there have been rivalries, and to that extent the party has been split. There have been schisms, people supporting different leaders. But Mugabe hitherto hasn't wanted to groom an heir. It's a denial of his own mortality. It's the hubris of the tyrant and it was ever thus.

MONTAGNE: Peter Godwin, thank you very much.

GODWIN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Zimbabwean author Peter Godwin. His latest book is "The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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