Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe's Future


By Martin Meredith

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Robert Mugabe came to power in Zimbabwe in 1980 after a long civil war in Rhodesia. The white minority government had become an international outcast in refusing to give in to the inevitability of black majority rule. Finally the defiant white prime minister Ian Smith was forced to step down and Mugabe was elected president. Initially he promised reconciliation between white and blacks, encouraged Zimbabwe’s economic and social development, and was admired throughout the world as one of the leaders of the emerging nations and as a model for a transition from colonial leadership. But as Martin Meredith shows in this history of Mugabe’s rule, Mugabe from the beginning was sacrificing his purported ideals—and Zimbabwe’s potential—to the goal of extending and cementing his autocratic leadership. Over time, Mugabe has become ever more dictatorial, and seemingly less and less interested in the welfare of his people, treating Zimbabwe’s wealth and resources as spoils of war for his inner circle. In recent years he has unleashed a reign of terror and corruption in his country. Like the Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Zimbabwe has been on a steady slide to disaster. Now for the first time the whole story is told in detail by an expert. It is a riveting and tragic political story, a morality tale, and an essential text for understanding today’s Africa.


Praise For Mugabe*
"The best argued and best written indictment yet of the man Nelson Mandela mockingly calls Comrade Bob."
—The Economist
"Martin Meredith offers a heartfelt look at African politics through the lens of an informed and objective journalist. . . . It is a book that gives the full story on Zimbabwe's current predicament. . . ."
Quarterly Black Review of Books
"An accessible introduction."
Foreign Affairs
"Martin Meredith's book is not so much a biography as a brief gallop through the unfolding moral fable of independent Zimbabwe to the present day. As such it is a useful short guide. . . ."
The Sunday Times
"Fast paced and readable."
The Nation
"The book is highly readable, clear, and fast-moving. It is excellent on Mugabe's early life and the way he became drawn into the struggle of Zimbabwe. It is also well-timed. . . ."
The Financial Times
"Concise and lucid."
Wall Street Journal
"Pithy, authoritative, and highly readable: journalism of the highest order."
—NOAH RICHLER, National Post
"Martin Meredith's account of the pursuit of power and plunder is especially good on the early years of Mugabe as an African guerilla fighter."
—The Telegraph
*Previously published in North America as Our Votes, Our Guns

The Past Is Another Country: Rhodesia—UDI to Zimbabwe
The First Dance of Freedom: Black Africa in the Postwar Era
In the Name of Apartheid: South Africa in the Postwar Era
South Africa's New Era: The 1994 Election
Nelson Mandela: A Biography
Coming to Terms: South Africa's Search for Truth
Elephant Destiny: Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa (published in the UK as Africa's Elephant: A Biography
Fischer's Choice: A Biography of Bram Fischer
The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence (published in the UK as The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence)
Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British,
the Boers, and the Making of South Africa
(published in the UK as Diamonds, Gold and War:
The Making of South Africa

Our votes must go together with our guns. After all, any vote we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun. The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer—its guarantor. The people's votes and the people's guns are always inseparable twins.

FROM THE WINDOW of his book-lined study, Father Dieter Scholz gazed out at the hills surrounding Chishawasha Mission as he reflected on the character and career of Robert Mugabe, the aging president of Zimbabwe. They had first met at a secret gathering in Salisbury in December 1974 a few days after Mugabe had been released from eleven years' imprisonment during a cease-fire in the guerrilla war against white rule in Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then called. Father Scholz, a Jesuit, had been one of the few white priests to support the African nationalist cause. As a member of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, he had played a leading role in investigating wartime atrocities by the Rhodesian security forces. Together with a small band of Catholic colleagues, he was regarded by Ian Smith's regime as "an enemy of the state." Smith had seized independence from Britain in 1965, determined to halt the tide of black nationalism sweeping through Africa that had led Britain to hand over its other colonies to African rulers. In the civil war that subsequently broke out in Rhodesia in 1972, Smith acted ruthlessly against his opponents, both black and white. Father Scholz was kept under constant surveillance. With a new cease-fire in place, he and his colleagues had gone to the meeting with Mugabe, in a college building in the city centre, to gain a first-hand account of the negotiations that had led to Mugabe's release. "He was quiet spoken and articulate," recalled Father Scholz in 2001. "There was no rancour."
Mugabe told the gathering that during the previous month in Que Que prison he had been in the process of writing a Latin examination for a law degree when an African envoy arrived asking him and other senior members of the banned Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) to attend a summit meeting of African leaders in neighbouring Zambia that was intended to pave the way to negotiations for a Rhodesian settlement. He was told the plan was backed by Tanzania's Julius Nyerere, Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda, Mozambique's Samora Machel, and Botswana's Seretse Khama, all of whom had hitherto supported the war effort, allowing guerrillas to use their territories to establish rear bases and supply lines. Also involved in the plan was the South African prime minister, John Vorster, who had provided the Rhodesian security forces with crucial support and who was prepared to lean heavily on Smith to get him to cooperate. As part of the plan, Mugabe was told, the Rhodesian authorities had agreed to his temporary release from prison; a senior white official subsequently visited him to promise that the government would pay for any costs resulting from an interruption to his law examinations.
But Mugabe was hostile to any idea of negotiations. His years of imprisonment had only hardened his resolve to pursue revolution in Rhodesia. Alone among the nationalist leaders, he saw no reason to seek a compromise with Rhodesia's white rulers that would leave the structure of white society largely intact and thwart his hopes of achieving an egalitarian people's state. Whereas other imprisoned nationalists, such as his main rival, Joshua Nkomo, the leader of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu), were willing to come to terms with Ian Smith, Mugabe regarded armed struggle as an essential part of the process of establishing a new society.
Mugabe's first reaction to the proposal to attend the summit meeting in Lusaka was to turn it down. "We Zanu leaders felt that we could not entertain talks at this stage, that it was too early," he told the Catholic group. Even when the African envoy returned to Que Que prison two days later with a written invitation signed by Nyerere, Kaunda, Machel, and Khama, Mugabe was still reluctant to go. "We were very angry because we thought that the heads of state were selling us out," he explained. Only under duress had he finally agreed to travel to Zambia for a preliminary meeting. "The four heads of state said we could prosecute the war to the end, but if we had a chance to achieve the same aim without bloodshed, we should do so." They also wanted Zanu and Zapu to bury their differences and form a united front for the negotiations. But Mugabe remained recalcitrant. Soon afterwards he returned to his prison cell.
When the summit meeting eventually took place in Lusaka, Zambia, in December 1974, it was a fractious event. The African presidents were infuriated by the continuing divisions between Zanu and Zapu. "Nyerere attacked both Zanu and Zapu," Mugabe reported. "He scolded us and then Kaunda spoke and attacked us still more viciously, calling us treacherous, criminal, selfish and not taking the interests of our people to heart. If we did not comply, he would no longer entertain our military presence in Zambia." Machel, he said, had made similar threats about Mozambique's support.
Faced with those threats, Mugabe ostensibly agreed to form a united front and to accept the plan for negotiation, but he had no intention of adhering to it. "We all had plans for self-preservation," he admitted to the Catholic group.
Upon his release from prison, Mugabe, together with a few trusted colleagues, set about secretly organising recruits for Zanu's guerrilla army, Zanla, based in neighbouring Mozambique. Mugabe was assigned the Salisbury district. He was a frequent visitor to Silveira House, a training centre for black leaders that Jesuit priests had established on land belonging to Chishawasha Mission, fifteen miles east of Salisbury. It was one of the few places in Rhodesia where black politicians and church personnel met regularly to discuss ideas for a new social order. Mugabe's two sisters, Sabina and Bridgette, were employed there to work on development programmes for women. Mugabe was given an office and a telephone there and he lectured on Christianity and socialism.
Silveira House was well known to Smith's security police as a hotbed of dissent and was constantly watched. On days when the presence of the security police was more evident than usual, Father John Dove, a former British army officer who had founded the centre, would discreetly inform the staff, "today we are sailing close to the wind."
In March 1975, shortly after his fiftieth birthday, with the recruitment campaign well under way, Mugabe resolved to head for Mozambique himself. He was ambitious to gain control of Zanu's guerrilla campaign. Before leaving, he went to say farewell to his mother, Bona, at her home near Kutama Mission, west of Salisbury. "I am going to war, whether I shall return or not," he told her. Mugabe's brother, Donato, recalled how their mother wept at the news.
But the security police were already closing in. Returning to Salisbury from Kutama Mission, Mugabe discovered that one of his closest friends, Maurice Nyagumbo, a former prison colleague, had been arrested. Nyagumbo was later sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment for recruiting Africans to join Zanu in Mozambique, a fate that would also have befallen Mugabe.
Desperate to escape the dragnet, Mugabe sought help from Catholic priests. He made his way to a parish house in Rhodesville, a Salisbury suburb, searching for Father Emmanuel Ribeiro, a prison chaplain who had previously been sympathetic to Zanu detainees, smuggling letters and messages for them. Father Ribeiro agreed to let him hide in the parish house while he worked out an escape route.
At Mugabe's suggestion, he went to see Sister Mary Aquina, a white university sociologist and ardent supporter of the African nationalist cause, one of the few people in Salisbury whom Mugabe was prepared to trust.
On learning of Mugabe's predicament, Sister Mary immediately began to devise an escape route. From the convent where she worked she drove her grey Volkswagen to a farm in Ruwa, twenty miles from the capital, setting up contact with a Zanu activist living on an agricultural cooperative at Nyafaru in the eastern highlands, close to the border with Mozambique, alerting him that "farm medical supplies" needed to be fetched from Salisbury urgently. On her return to Salisbury, fearing that Mugabe's presence at the Rhodesville presbytery might be betrayed by the parish priest, she rushed round to warn him. She found Mugabe in a room pacing up and down and offered to take him straight away to the farm in Ruwa. But Mugabe wanted to wait for a companion, Edgar Tekere, to arrive.
Later that day Mugabe and Tekere left for the farm in Ruwa, where the Zanu activist joined them. At midnight they set off on a circuitous route to Nyafaru. The following night, as friends at Nyafaru prepared to guide them across the border, a look-out spotted the security police approaching. With no time to spare, Mugabe escaped through a back window into the forest. On April 5, 1975, with the police in close pursuit, he crossed the mountains into Mozambique.
For two years, while Zanu was wracked by internal feuds, Mugabe bided his time in exile in Mozambique. But in 1977 he finally succeeded in gaining control of the guerrilla campaign.
In Salisbury, Father Dieter Scholz persevered with the work of the Justice and Peace Commission. Born in Berlin in 1938 and educated by Jesuits, he had been sent to Rhodesia in 1963, speaking little English and knowing nothing about the country. After studying the chiShona language at Salisbury University, he had been sent to a mission station in northeast Rhodesia, after which he returned to Salisbury. In 1973, soon after the guerrilla war started, Scholz was told over supper one night by a fellow Jesuit visiting Salisbury from the Zambezi Valley about harsh counter-insurgency measures being used by the Rhodesian security forces. When Scholz informed the Justice and Peace Commission, there was considerable scepticism about the report. Scholz therefore decided to travel to the Zambezi Valley himself to ascertain the facts, bringing back first-hand accounts of security force brutality against civilians. With the support of the Justice and Peace Commission, he began documenting other cases. One volume was published in April 1975; a second volume, dealing with abduction, torture, and murder, was published in 1976. Shortly before a third volume was due to appear in 1977, the police raided the commission's offices and arrested Scholz and other leading members, charging them with offences under the Law and Order (Maintenance) Act, a totalitarian measure used by the government to suppress its opponents. The charges were eventually dropped, but in 1978 Scholz was deported.
By 1979 the guerrilla war had spread to every rural area of Rhodesia. Main roads and railway lines were under frequent attack. White farmers bore the brunt, barricaded at night in fortified homes, living daily with the risks of ambushes and land mines. Despite the death and destruction that white rule had brought, Ian Smith remained obdurate. Only reluctantly did he accept the need for an alliance with the moderate African leader, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, giving way to him as prime minister in 1979; even then, so intent was Smith on showing that whites were effectively still in control that he undermined what little chance of success Muzorewa had of bringing peace.
As the war intensified, Britain launched one last initiative to find a solution, calling for negotiations at a conference to be held in London. Once again Mugabe saw no need to attend. His guerrilla army, Zanla, was planning to embark on a new phase of urban warfare. "We felt we needed yet another thrust, and in the urban areas, in order to bring the fight home to where the whites had their citadels," he recalled. The longer the war lasted, the greater were the prospects for achieving his revolutionary objectives.
Yet again Mugabe faced the wrath of African presidents. Both Samora Machel and Kenneth Kaunda insisted that so damaging were Rhodesian raids on guerrilla bases and supply lines in Mozambique and Zambia that they could no longer afford to support the war effort. Machel, himself a revolutionary leader in the war against Portuguese rule in Mozambique, was blunt: If Mugabe refused to go to London and explore negotiations, then he would close down the liberation war.
Mugabe was furious. "We thought they were selling out," he recalled. "The front-line states said we had to negotiate, we had to go to this conference. There we were, we thought we were on top of the situation back home, we were moving forward all the time, and why should we be denied the ultimate joy of having militarily overthrown the regime here? We felt that would give us a better position. We could then dictate terms."
Mugabe gave in and arrived in London in September 1979, a cold, austere figure who rarely smiled and seemed bent on achieving revolution, whatever the cost. While in exile he had repeatedly insisted on the need for a one-party Marxist state, threatened that Ian Smith and his "criminal gang" would be tried and shot, and warned that white exploiters would not be allowed to keep an acre of land. British officials, although acknowledging his intellectual ability, found him difficult to deal with. "Mugabe could be very unpleasant," recalled Sir Michael Palliser, head of the Foreign Office. "He had a very sharp, sometimes rather aggressive, and unpleasant manner."
For his part, Mugabe distrusted the British as intensely as they distrusted him. "I never trusted the British. Never at all. I did not think they meant well toward us. In the final analysis, I do not think they wanted the liberation movement, and especially the one I led, Zanu, to be the victor." At one point during the Lancaster House conference, Mugabe remarked caustically to British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington: "It is we who have liberated Rhodesia—you are simply intervening now to take advantage of our victory."
Against all odds, the conference stumbled towards agreement. However, at the final hurdle, Mugabe balked at accepting the cease-fire arrangements and made plans to fly to New York to denounce the Lancaster House proceedings at the United Nations. What stopped him was a direct warning given to him by an envoy from Samora Machel: If he did not sign the agreement, he would be welcomed back to Mozambique and given a beach house where he could write his memoirs, but Mozambique would make no further sacrifices for a cause that could be won at the conference table. In other words, as far as Mozambique was concerned, the war was over.
Mugabe was resentful about the outcome of the conference: "As I signed the document, I was not a happy man at all. I felt we had been cheated to some extent, that we had agreed to a deal which would to some extent rob us of victory we had hoped we would achieve in the field."
The British plan, agreed to at the Lancaster House conference, involved sending out to Rhodesia a British governor, supported by a small team of officials, to hold the ring between an assortment of armies in the hope that the cease-fire would last long enough for elections to be held. It was a perilous venture, likely to explode at the point when the election results were announced.
The man chosen as governor, Christopher Soames, a Tory cabinet minister, had few apparent qualifications for the job. He had never been to Rhodesia or taken any interest in Rhodesian affairs and, as he admitted, his knowledge of the complexities of the conflict was slight. On his arrival in Salisbury on December 12, he spoke of the task ahead in the manner of a Tory grandee: "I want to see the freest, fairest elections possible in this country . . . but intimidation is rife, violence is rife. . . . You must remember this is Africa. This isn't Little Puddleton-on-the-Marsh, and they behave differently here. They think nothing of sticking poles up each other's whatnot, and doing filthy, beastly things to each other. It does happen, I'm afraid. It's a very wild thing, an election."
Mugabe returned to Salisbury on January 27, 1980, nearly five years after his escape into exile, to be given a hero's welcome by one of the largest crowds ever seen in Rhodesia. Banners portraying rocket grenades, land mines, and guns greeted him, and many youths wore tee shirts displaying the Kalashnikov rifle, the election symbol that Zanu wanted but the British had disallowed.
Mugabe himself was unexpectedly conciliatory. In Mozambique, shortly before Mugabe's return to Salisbury, President Samora Machel had intervened to warn Zanu against fighting the election on a revolutionary platform. Machel himself was still struggling to overcome the massive disruption caused in Mozambique at independence in 1975 by the exodus of whites fleeing from the Marxist regime he had instituted. Addressing members of Zanu's central committee, Machel was blunt. "Don't play make-believe Marxist games when you get home," he said. "You will face ruin if you force the whites there into precipitate flight."
Consequently, Mugabe's manifesto was stripped of all reference to Marxism and revolution. It spoke instead of the need to take account of "practical realities" such as the capitalist system, which could not be transformed overnight:
Zanu wishes to give the fullest assurance to the white community, the Asian and coloured [mixed-race] communities that a Zanu government can never in principle or in social or government practice, discriminate against them. Racism, whether practised by whites or blacks, is anathema to the humanitarian philosophy of Zanu. It is as primitive a dogma as tribalism or regionalism. Zimbabwe cannot just be a country of blacks. It is and should remain our country, all of us together.
This message of moderation was largely lost, however, in the uproar over intimidation that erupted at the time of Mugabe's return. All three main parties—Mugabe's Zanu-Patriotic Front, as it was now called, Nkomo's Zapu, and Muzorewa's United African National Congress—were adjudged guilty of using intimidation, but British officials considered Zanu-PF to be the worst culprit by far. In violation of the cease-fire agreement, Mugabe had withheld several thousand guerrillas from holding camps to influence the campaign. The scale of intimidation in eastern Rhodesia, according to British officials, was massive. Neither Nkomo nor Muzorewa supporters had been able to campaign there at all. "The word intimidation is mild," roared Nkomo. "People are being terrorised. It is terror. There is fear in people's eyes." There were mounting demands for Soames to ban Zanu from participating in the election, as he was empowered to do under the terms of the Lancaster House agreement.
Four days after his return from Mozambique, Mugabe was summoned by Soames for a meeting at Government House, the residence he used in Salisbury. A sprawling bungalow of a type originally designed for Indian earthquake zones, it was surrounded by spacious gardens brimming with roses and exotic flowers that glowed after dark during the warm summer evenings. The ornate rooms, furnished with portraits of Cecil Rhodes, Queen Victoria, and other important personages; the fishponds; and the aviary reflected a gentility that had long since passed. Mugabe arrived in a convoy of battered vehicles crammed with armed bodyguards, who leaped out ahead of him. A British official stepped forward, his arms outstretched. "I'm sorry, but we don't have guns in Government House. Perhaps your people would prefer to wait in the car."
The meeting in the main reception room was icy. As Soames recalled: "I had the same picture that everybody had, that he was something of a Marxist ogre, and that he'd as soon slit your throat as look at you. And that he was 'a bad man.'"
Soames remonstrated with Mugabe over his tactics of intimidation. Mugabe in turn pointed to intimidation by Muzorewa's auxiliaries and the Rhodesian security forces. He saw the meeting merely as part of the British plan to thwart his campaign. "The governor is scared by the prospect of a win by our party," he later said. "He would have preferred Muzorewa to win."
Mugabe's suspicions increased after two assassination attempts were made on his life. The first, on February 6, was clearly the work of amateurs: A grenade thrown at the house he had bought in the former white suburb of Mount Pleasant exploded harmlessly against a garden wall. But the second attempt, on February 10, nearly succeeded. As Mugabe's motorcade was travelling from a political rally in Fort Victoria to the airport there, a massive bomb placed in a culvert on the roadside exploded only seconds after Mugabe's car passed over. Mugabe was shaken but not hurt. In a memorandum Mugabe gave Soames two days later, he blamed the security forces for the assassination attempt and listed numerous examples of the ways in which, he claimed, the British authorities, acting in collusion with the Rhodesian administration, were trying to destroy his party. Their exchanges became increasingly acrimonious.
As the election approached, Soames was required to decide whether to take action against Zanu, either by banning it from areas directly affected by intimidation or disqualifying it altogether. The Rhodesian security forces, Muzorewa, and Nkomo all urged him to disqualify Zanu; even his closest advisers were in favour of a ban. But Soames eventually concluded that Mugabe was likely to win the election by such an overwhelming margin that imposing a partial ban would make little difference to the outcome and would wreck whatever chances there were of working with Mugabe to achieve an orderly transition. The risk was that the Rhodesian security forces, furious at the prospect of Mugabe winning, might stage a coup.
The day before polling began on February 27, Soames called Mugabe to Government House, deciding that what was needed was a private meeting alone in his study to try to overcome the distrust with which he and Mugabe had viewed one another. There, Soames informed Mugabe that he would not be using his powers to ban polling or disenfranchise voters in any part of the country. "I think it's in the best interests of Rhodesia that all parties start this election," he said.
Mugabe was relieved but outwardly showed little reaction. Soames then steered the conversation towards the post-election period, asking how Mugabe saw the future. Mugabe paused. There would be no radical change, no hounding of the whites, no nationalisation, he said. He was deeply conscious of the shortcomings of his own team, their lack of political, administrative, and economic experience and skills. Independence should not come too quickly after the election. "I would like you to stay on for as long as possible," he told Soames. They parted amicably.
There remained the possibility of a coup. With Soames's encouragement, Mugabe invited General Peter Walls, the Rhodesian armed forces commander, to a private meeting later that night at his new Mount Pleasant home. There Mugabe asked him to stay on as armed forces commander if he won the election. Walls recalled: "I said to him, but how can I as an avowed anti-Marxist work for a person like you? He gave me a lecture on how the principles of Karl Marx were the same as Jesus Christ." Unknown to Mugabe, Walls sent a message to the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, asking her to abrogate the elections because of intimidation.


On Sale
Apr 28, 2009
Page Count
272 pages

Martin Meredith

About the Author

Martin Meredith is a journalist, biographer, and historian who has written extensively on Africa and its recent history. His previous books include Mandela; Mugabe; Diamonds, Gold, and War; Born in Africa; and The Fate of Africa. He lives near Oxford, England.

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