Comment: Through the looking glass

‘Democracy, freedom, human rights have come to have a definite meaning to the people of the world which we must not allow any nation to so change that they are made synonymous with suppression and dictatorship.’ Eleanor Roosevelt, September 28, 1948.

The Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin allegedly said that ‘The death of a man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.”

Although this may be attributed to his lack of humanity, it also makes a salient point about the nature of 20th century dictatorships. Like Pol Pot and Mao Zedong, Stalin belonged to an exclusive group of dictators who wielded enormous power and exterminated millions of people who stood in their way.

Although Gayoom’s dictatorship in the Maldives was never in the same league, the political constructs were the same: the monopoly of the press, iron-fisted control of the judicial system, one party rule and the torture of political opponents as a tactic to stay in control.

However, in the late 1970s, just as Gayoom was beginning to spread his tentacles of power in the Maldives, globally, the tide began to turn in favour of democratic ideals. The fundamental concepts of life, liberty, justice, equality and the notion of the common good made a come-back. Concurrently, the word ‘dictator’ which was synonymous with absolute power and authority, became a term of ridicule, of derision, signalling an appalling inability to change with changing times.

But have dictatorships, like the famous parrot immortalised by Monty Python, ceased to be, expired and gone to meet their maker and become bereft of life? Have they kicked the bucket, run down the curtain and gone to join the bleeding choir invisible?

There are two realities that people of liberal persuasion must grasp. Firstly, despite the Arab Spring and strong forward movements by democratic ideals, conservatism as a trend has re-asserted itself. The Empire has struck back, nurturing the same ideology but armed with a different set of tools. It has reinvented itself and like a chameleon, reappeared in a different guise; one that is more in tune with the 21st century political landscape.
Secondly, and most importantly, democracy is worth fighting for. Its defining characteristics of justice, inclusiveness and equality are universal values that give dignity to human life. Despite the slow encroachment of conservative and elitist ideologies, democracy is not finished, it is close at hand and its worth demands our sacrifice.

But beware! Today’s dictator is not in a uniform covered in gold-plated medals; nor is he an object of ridicule generating derisive laughter. He is well spoken, cosmopolitan and media savvy. His CV and certificates on the wall may indicate strong academic connections that validate his claim to good governance and commitment to progressive ideals. He is Putin of Russia. He is Mohamed Morsi of Egypt. He is Mohammed Waheed Hassan of the Maldives. They are the new face of dictatorships in the 21st century.

Shimon Peres, one of the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 said, “Today, if you are looking for a safe job, don’t become a dictator.” The world has become less forgiving of human rights abuse, torture and mass killings. Dictators not only have to show restraint in their own personal inclinations and hide their draconian political agendas, but they also have to dress their actions in a different style. Thus the art of equivocation has been perfected by modern dictators. They understand that excessive violence in the tradition of Tiananmen Square is no longer possible, but they still relentlessly punish their opponents. They stand behind what seems a set of progressive laws, but they are masters of the selective application of these.

Waheed’s government in the Maldives provides an almost text-book study of this type of dictatorship; its creative double-talk masking its overwhelming cruelty and desperate grasping for control.

His search for legitimacy and global recognition came early. One of his first political engagements was to write to heads of states to explain why he was forced to take over power. He proactively set the scene: here was a man of reason, who could articulate his noble intentions in rational and practical terms; here was a man who could be trusted to work with the international body. However, almost simultaneously, on his home-turf, the members of his police and the armed forces, who helped to place him in the presidency, were executing a reign of terror, previously unseen in the Maldives.

According to a reply written to Waheed’s letter by Mike Mason, the Energy adviser to President Nasheed, Waheed is ‘committed to Maldives and Democracy.’ But Mason fails to distinguish between a simplistic, self-indulgent, self-deluding belief in democracy on the one hand and the physical responses and actions which totally destroy democracy on the other hand. Mason simply underlines what many of us know – Waheed is a superficial individual who lacks the intelligence to see beyond his rhetoric. He has never demonstrated his commitments to democratic principles.

Proof of this can be seen in his rewarding the armed forces with resort islands, promoting and increasing their salaries as opposed to bringing to justice the police and defence force members who brutally attacked innocent Maldivians and vandalised public property. The proposed budget for 2013 would see an increase of the defence spending by 14 percent. Instead of promoting democracy he is paving the way to a military dictatorship. All signs indicate that such a fate is not far.

Meanwhile, the IMF mission, in November this year spoke of ‘a ballooning fiscal deficit’ the effects of which are felt by the average Maldivians who are struggling, not simply because of the global economic recession, but due to the moribund economy based on the debilitating corruption and nepotism condoned by the Waheed, Gayoom, Military consortium. In doing so he is destroying meritocracy, the civil service, the level playing field and the acceptance of differences that exist in a true democracy.

Waheed speaks of Maldives as ‘a damn good democracy’, yet he has denied the people their call for an early election, disregarding the advice by international bodies such as the EU and the Commonwealth to do so. There are increasing allegations by MPs that his government’s bullying tactics are creating a ‘climate of fear’ in the People’s Majlis.

Ostensibly he stands for tolerance, yet his bedfellows and support base include the Salafists. The country is fast sliding into a fundamentalist nightmare where an Adhaalath ( The Islamist party) aligned MP has recently gone so far as to call for one of his opponents to be ‘hanged to death’. Journalist and writer, Azra Naseem, points out that in ‘a damned good democracy’ the president describes his Islamist supporters as ‘Mujaheddin, fighting a Holy War.” All these add to the climate of intolerance, hatred and escalating violence.

New age dictators like Waheed claim to stand for law and justice. The Maldives for instance, has a constitution. But the new dictator of the 21st century is adept in the selective application of this justice. Putin for example uses his fire and health regulations to close down opposition radio stations and newspapers. But the same rules are not applied to his supporters. In the Maldives also, justice is used to destroy opponents; and this together with the failure to bring to justice more urgent cases that need addressing, creates a tangible state of injustice.

Waheed’s main focus is to prevent the former president, Mohamed Nasheed, from participating in the next elections. Meanwhile the immensely corrupt judicial system and the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court, Judge Abdulla Mohamed continue to high-jack any efforts to make progress in this all important sector of the state.

Like the dictators of the past, Waheed continues to use propaganda to white-wash the actions of his government and its supporters. However, the style today is more subtle. The regime’s narrative is disseminated in a two- pronged programme. The first and the most expensive, and possibly the least effective, has been the employment of the Ruder Finn PR company at a cost of US$150,000 a month. Fortunately for the seekers of truth, the contract was terminated in November this year: it is not clear whether the bankrupt Maldivian government ran out of money to fund this type of expensive hobbies, or that the company came to the inevitable conclusion that some clients are just too toxic for it to be associated with.

The second, and the most direct, has been the narrative constructed by the regime: the building of metaphors, the framing of issues and the controlling of the political dialogue that help their cause. Here MDP is depicted as an aggregate of drug taking, alcohol swilling people who lack any respectability. Nasheed is attacked personally and presented as a cynical opportunist who uses the democratic platform to get to power for personal gain. We have to ask why?

Is this because they have no other way of attacking Nasheed? Could it be that his actions, unlike the words of the dictator, speak louder? During the three short years under MDP, a comprehensive system of old age pension was introduced and access to health care for all Maldivians improved. For the first time, the outlying islands began to get the recognition and support they deserve. There was development in infrastructure. Travel between the islands was upgraded with a more efficient transport network and the fiscal deficit, the legacy of neglect of Gayoom’s regime, was attended to. In 2010 IMF reported that ‘the government of Maldives has put together and is implementing a set of essential fiscal adjustment measures’, but in April 2012 under Waheed, it raised “grave concerns for the Maldives economy.”

It is not surprising that in the recent by-election in Raa Atoll, a regime stronghold, MDP support shot up by 120 percent. It is obvious that they cannot attack the actions of their opponents, so they are reduced to attacking the people involved.

Waheed’s political vicissitude does nothing to inspire confidence, either in his own people or in international stake-holders. Some see his failure as a result of the hand he was dealt with, which was “almost impossible to play.” Others question his intelligence; the type of intelligence that functions when cocooned in an ivory tower, is different to that which is required in running a state. Some comment on his poor work ethic or his inability to commit to any one objective. Perhaps there are elements of truth in all these, but the defining weakness is in his ideological stand.

Dictators may appear to have made a come-back. But within their success in reinventing themselves, and gaining support though the dangerous game of deception, lie the seeds of their own destruction. A dictatorship is a dictatorship, however it is packaged.

Abraham Lincoln was believed to have said, “You can fool some of the people all of the times, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

The new-age dictator cannot have it both ways. Despite ‘candid’ letters and high sounding rhetoric, a dictatorship is not a democracy and we must never let ambitious despots use democratic jargon to gain legitimacy.

The passage of time has become the greatest witness to Waheed’s failure. Nine months has elapsed since the coup and the political and social landscape is littered by the fall-out of his inability to lead. Violence has escalated, government influence of the media has increased and Islamic fundamentalism has been allowed to grow into a forceful political power. Even Waheed has been forced to admit that “everybody runs the state as they please.”

Personal freedoms have declined as has the standard of living of the majority of Maldivians. The state is bankrupt and the government’s financial and political supporters cannot seem to grasp the simple fact that the Maldives is a vulnerable, small state that needs the goodwill of its neighbours.

Crucially in this political wilderness, the police and the armed forces have been permitted to do as they please. Time has shown that Waheed’s brand of dictatorship is not working. This begs the question: will he move up to the next level of dictatorship and use more force or, while he is procrastinating and thinking of the appropriate rhetoric, will the police and the armed forces take the initiative and establish themselves as a military government? Sadly, none of these impending eventualities are in the best interest of the people of the Maldives. But, these are the only two alternatives for Waheed’s government.

There is room for optimism, however. The greatest danger to dictators has never been the well-meaning bureaucrats hidden behind glass windows of high rise buildings. The most feared opposition to injustice and authoritarian rule has always been the ordinary people. Democracy, as an ideology is global. Its strengths are firmly embedded in universal and timeless ethical values. It is not simply a convenient aphorism to claim that human progress towards its full potential has little to do with technology and materialism but has everything to do with the way we learn to treat each other. Democracy is a potent force that will not be beaten. As Victor Hugo said, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

As the world slides down to economic recession, the opposing forces of democracy and dictatorship are equally balanced globally as they are in the Maldives. The traditional caretakers of democracy, America, Europe and the Commonwealth, are focused largely on the internal, economic problems of their respective nations. It would appear that the coast is clear for men who lust for absolute power, to seize the moment.

However, paradoxically, economic hard-times can also make the self- interest of dictators and the lifestyles of their elitist friends stand out in stark contrast to the poverty and the struggle of the ordinary man on the street. The masses, no longer kept distracted by ‘bread and circus.’ can rise again.

Nothing is as powerful as the will of the people.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to


Comment: Gayoom and Nasir unlikely to face their Mubarak moment

A large screen set up outside the court premises streamed images of historic trial from within, while a banner under it proclaimed ‘O Judge of Judges, you have nothing to fear but God!’

Inside the building which once bore his name, former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak pleaded not guilty to charges ranging from graft to “intentional killing of demonstrators” during the January 25 uprising that toppled his regime.

Lying on a stretcher, inside a specially built cage within the same building where, less than two days before the revolution started he had addressed his security forces whose support he enjoyed during nearly three decades of absolute power – he pleaded not guilty on all charges.

Recordings of his not-guilty plea in Arabic – “I categorically deny all charges” – have reportedly become popular ring tones, and images of the once powerful dictator inside a metal cage are being circulated widely on Internet groups.

Mubarak’s trial marks the first time in recent memory that the leader of an Arab nation – long accustomed to ruling until they die or are assassinated – has been made answerable to his own people for alleged abuse of power.

Over 850 people died in the 18 days of uprising early this year, before he stepped down.

In fact, the presiding Judge asked a lawyer at one point “Could you write down the (victims) names, or will it take hours?”

Even as Mubarak fights charges that carries a possible death sentence if convicted, many would agree that even in the scenario of his being acquitted, the dictator’s fall from grace is complete, and that this trial ultimately only provides catharsis and a warning to his embattled peers elsewhere in the middle east.

Images of his trial may aggravate the situation in Saleh’s Yemen, Gaddafi’s Libya, and Assad’s Syria, where authoritarian despots are clinging to power hoping to last through the unabated turbulence of the Arab spring.

It is quite possible that these dictators would blame Mubarak’s current predicament on his softness, and relatively quick exit from power – a mere 18 days after crowds assembled in Tahrir Square. With the stakes now even higher, these regimes might resort to a violent fight to the finish, unless they can be coerced into catching a flight to Jeddah.

At least 1700 civilians are believed to have been killed in Syria since uprisings began, and estimates range between 2000 to 12000 killed in Libya, with no signs of the an end to the rebellion.

While the Mubarak trial holds special symbolic meaning for the Arab people, it also holds some significance in the Maldivian context.

It was, after all, from the halls of Egypt’s Al Azhar University that former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom emerged.

When democracy arrived in the Maldives after a prolonged period of public protests, many expected Gayoom to be prosecuted – and his political cronies to be put on trial.

Throughout the democratic uprising, after all, opposition leaders had publicly accused President Gayoom of a wide spectrum of allegations ranging from corruption to torture.

However, Gayoom continues to be a free man, and no charges have yet been brought against him by the first democratically elected government.

It might be that despite the alleged excesses of his former government, Gayoom continues to hold a massive sway over a significant portion of the population, as evidenced by the 40 percent of votes he garnered in the first round of the Presidential polls.

President Mohamed Nasheed has stuck to his stated stand of ‘humility in times of victory’, and while there still remain occasional calls for Gayoom’s arrest from parliamentarians like “Reeko” Moosa, the public attention has long since shifted to more immediate matters of a weakening economy and dollar shortages.

Gayoom’s predecessor, President Ibrahim Nasir had also modeled himself after Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, a modernist with dictatorial tendencies.

After he became the First President of the Second Republic, Nasir was the hero of the Nation’s independence.

However, during his earlier stint as Prime Minister, Nasir’s heavy-handed tactics such as personally leading gunboats to forcefully depopulate Thinadhoo in 1962, in the aftermath of the southern rebellion, has been condemned by many as being especially ruthless.

Nasir never stood trial in a public court. Following Gayoom’s ascent to power, Nasir lived out the rest of his life in exile in Singapore.

Nasir died a few days after the Gayoom regime fell, and was buried with his royal ancestors at the cemetery attached to the hukuru miskiy. Tens of thousands paid him their last respects, and a national holiday was declared in his honour.

He has recently been honoured again by the MDP government, which renamed the Male’ International Airport as Ibrahim Nasir International Airport in recognition of his efforts towards building it.

The news of the airport renaming was met with some disappointment by many Huvadhu islanders, some of whom still remember Nasir as the man who tore their families apart. Sounds of gunfire are still fresh in their memories.

Humiliating scenes of men being forced to step off their islands, supervised by the political strongman himself, continue to persist on the Internet.

It is increasingly likely that the alleged crimes and corruption of Gayoom and Nasir will never face their Mubarak moment. Furthermore, the government has so far given no indication of making a even a symbolic public apology for the southern outrage that was Thinadhoo.

While Mubarak’s trial assuages some of Egypt’s hurt and brings hope to rebels in the Middle East, it reopens some old wounds for many Maldivians, who feel justice has been denied to them.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Arabs: The masters of their fate

Just two weeks ago, the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak seemed as firm and immovable as the great timeless pyramids that symbolise his country of Egypt.

Today, the whole world is watching in suspended disbelief as tens of thousands of Egyptians openly defy Mubarak’s security forces – ignoring curfews, braving tear gas shells and water cannons, and tearing down giant posters of the powerful dictator that ruled over them for 30 years.

In parts of Cairo, law enforcement has melted away before the protestors, and the army has been called in to wrest back government control as Mubarak faces the largest public uprising since the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in 1952.

Meanwhile, a sudden clamour for freedom is also posing serious challenges to despotic regimes elsewhere in the Arab world.

This unlikely revolution began with a humble Tunisian fruit-seller, Muhammad Al Bouazizi who, in desperation after policemen took away his wooden cart, doused himself in petrol and struck a match that would ultimately set the whole Arab world ablaze.

In the ensuing outrage, citizens rose up in revolt in Tunisia leading to an ignominious end to the 23 year old autocratic regime of President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali.

The Tunisian president fled to Saudi Arabia with his family and close colleagues, where a Royal palace in Jeddah has reportedly been opened up to accommodate them.

A fascinating phenomena observed in this revolution is the manner in which a suppressed nation, long accustomed to arbitrary apprehensions and torture, could suddenly be overwhelmed by a single incident of tragedy – one moment of injustice that sent tremors throughout the population, leaving them seemingly immune to both pain and fear, as they took on a powerful, oppressive machinery.

The story is one that is intensely familiar to Maldivians. In 2003 the beating to death of Evan Naseem, an inmate of the Maafushi prison, sparked the first widespread riots in Male’.

As the unrest spread across the country, President Gayoom imposed a State of Emergency for the first time. However, it did little to bottle the popular grassroots revolution that successfully led to a new democratic constitution being adopted in 2008.

Egypt, on the other hand, has officially been in a State of Emergency since 1967, except for a brief 18-month period in 1980 and 1981; the Emergency was last extended by 2 years in May 2010.

Over 17,000 people are detained under the Emergency law in Egypt, and an estimated 30,000 political prisoners exist in the country. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, by far the most popular organised opposition party, has been branded a terrorist organization and remains banned in Egypt.

Surprisingly, even the Muslim Brotherhood appears to be struggling to catch up with the current mass protests that remain largely leaderless, but unabated in strength despite a death toll approaching 90.

For five whole days after the protests first started, no senior state official made a public appearance – an indication that the government was grappling with a response to the quickly unfolding revolution on the streets.

When Mubarak finally addressed the public in a pre-dawn speech aired on National television, it was with an air of hubris that characterises the 82 year old despot – he refused to budge, and sought to shift the blame to his nominal government cabinet, which he promised to replace by Saturday.

These actions are unlikely to satisfy the Egyptian protestors, and there might be more confrontation as Egypt prepares to flex its military muscle.

Another country living in a state of Emergency since 1992 is Tunisia’s giant neighbour, Algeria. In the aftermath of Tunisia’s successful revolution, protests have broken out all over Algeria – the largest uprising in two decades in a country that has witnessed a series of smaller protests in recent years.

Thousands of demonstrators have also poured out onto the streets of Sana’a in Yemen, the poorest of all Arab countries, where half the population lives under $2 a day, that nevertheless spends 40 percent of its state budget on maintaining its military force – the second largest in the Arabian peninsula after Saudi Arabia. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has been in power for 32 years; he also controls and heads the powerful military.

Indeed, the military has often been referred to as the backbone of Middle Eastern dictatorships. It has been the final instrument of power for several despots – notably illustrated by the fact that all four Egyptian Presidents since the overthrow of the monarchy have been military figures.

Hosni Mubarak’s grip on power may now depend entirely on the loyalty of the Egyptian military – the tenth largest in the world – of which he is the Commander-in-Chief.

It would be a loyalty well-earned, for Mubarak has spent generously on his armed forces; of the $1.55 billion aid granted by the US in 2010, $1.3 billion was spent on the military. Egypt is the second largest recipient of US military aid after Israel.

A leaked cable from the US Embassy in Cairo, nevertheless, suggests that the Egyptian military has gotten weak and fractious over the years.

While many analysts had deemed it unlikely for the military to side with the protestors, it is noted that the military prevented police from firing on demonstrators on Saturday – and soldiers could be seen publicly fraternising with demonstrators at the Ramses square in Cairo. The decision of the military could indeed decide the course of events in Egypt.

A loyal armed force helped the Iranian government crush the largest mass demonstrations since the Islamic revolution, in 2009. The pro-democracy movement, also known as the Green movement, threw up some vivid images of protestors trampling over posters of Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Club-wielding basij, a volunteer militia owing allegiance to the Ayatollah and the Revolutionary Guard, raided University campuses and broke up crowds while armed forces shot civilians in the street. Eighteen months later, the Iranian resistance appears to have been overcome.

On the other hand, intervention from the military saved the Tunisian revolution. The military refused to obey President Ben Ali’s orders to fire upon protestors, and reportedly even deployed army helicopters to protect demonstrators from government snipers positioned on rooftops. General Rachid Ammar, the head of the Tunisian military, also declined to occupy the newly vacant seat of power.

Winds of change are already blowing through the streets of a jubilant Tunisia, as the caretaker government has released hundreds of political prisoners, and vowed to lift restrictions on Islamist and Communist parties that were banned under the former regime.

It might be premature to say if this marks the beginning of a domino effect reminiscent of the serial collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Tunisia might very well be the Arabia’s answer to Poland, whose example led to a series of revolutions across Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, ultimately leading to the collapse of a once mighty Soviet empire.

The shared nature of Arab grievances and their mutual solidarity was strongly visible. Thousands of protestors in Amman, the capital of Jordan, were heard chanting “Egyptian nation, our beloved, your redemption is near!”

Protestors in Cairo carried Tunisian flags, a symbol of hope for a region that has for decades been plagued by corrupt, autocratic and oppressive regimes propped up and armed by rich Western interests; a region where many citizens have never experienced political freedoms.

Speaking to BBC radio, an Egyptian blogger reiterated that “All they’re asking for is for their voices to be heard, for their dignity to be respected and to have a humane life, and to have political freedom.”

Egypt, being the region’s foremost cultural, intellectual and political hub, will likely set an example for people in other countries like neighboring Libya, whose citizens have been living under the dictatorial rule of Muammar Al-Gaddafi for 42 years.

In the words of Victor Hugo, ‘One can resist the invasion of armies, but one cannot withstand an idea who time has arrived’.

Clearly, the time for change has arrived for Tunisia, and hope exists that Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and other Middle Eastern dictatorships will be dismantled and see the power returned to the people.


The Fear and loathing in Zimbabwe

A country’s decision to seek revenge or reconcile with a turbulent past is a subject so vast that sometimes people forget to ask the victims, says Peter Godwin, a former foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times and author of The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe.

Speaking at the Maldives Hay Festival held recently on the Presidential Retreat of Aarah, Godwin spoke about his own upbringing in Zimbabwe as “a white kid in black Africa”, and the country’s descent into dictatorship under President Robert Mugabe.

Godwin grew up in a remote corner of the country, then white-ruled, where his mother worked as a district doctor and often travelled to tribal areas.

“It was a very strange existence. We lived a culturally schizophrenic life – we were living in tropical Africa but would still send Christmas cards with holly and snowmen that we had never seen. It must have been the same for the last of the Anglo-Indians, where you have this other culture over the sea which you are increasingly distant from but yet you are not indigenous to the place you are living.”

With an average lifespan of just 36 years old, people lived in a way that was much more immediate, Godwin noticed later, after having lived in the UK, “as perhaps you do when you don’t have the expectation that you’re going to live for a long time.”

“It struck me that in a city like London the weight of history was palpable – you are surrounded by huge old buildings and statues carrying this great weight of history. People live through the lense of that history – in Africa it was as if people were living much more lightly, without that sense of retrospective.”

In his late teens Godwin was conscripted to fight in Zimbabwe’s emerging war for independence – “fighting on the wrong side of a losing war,” as he describes it.

“By weird coincidence the first white person killed in that war was our next-door neighbour. He was ambushed by one of the first guerrilla attacks in the early 1960s – my mother was the attending doctor.”

Boys were conscripted but you could get a pass to delay your service in you gained a place at a university. It was common among the small number of liberal white families to go to university abroad and not come back, Godwin explains, and sit out the war elsewhere.

“That was what I intended to do, but during my last year of school they changed the law and I found myself conscripted in a shooting war.”

It was a “very strange” experience to find oneself in combat, he says. “It’s very difficult to describe what it is like to anyone who hasn’t been through that training. You spend 4-5 months training very intensively with the expectation that you going to war, so when you finally do it feels completely normal by that stage.

“You become a ‘technician’ of war. You see it when soldiers are interviewed in places like Afghanistan. They are almost disappointed if they don’t see action. Training without going to war is like endlessly rehearsing a play, but never being able to put it on.”

Eventually Godwin was given leave by the army to attend university at Cambridge in the UK.

“It was a very sudden decision,” he says. “I arrived to do law at Cambridge literally shell-shocked, having been in combat that same week. I arrived feeling like a bushboy, having not really read a book for years. I remember wondering how I was going to survive socially and intellectually, surrounded by all these English who seemed very bright, educated and articulate. I felt antediluvian by comparison.”

Life became harder when UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came to power and cut back on scholarships, with the result that Godwin found himself without a means of financial support.

“Working while studying wasn’t a tradition of students in those days. I found a job at a mental hospital in a village outside Cambridge, working as a shift hand, and I would tell my friends I was going to a party in the country on the weekend.”

The nurses eventually realised that Godwin was a student, and confided with him that there was one patient who had been a law professor before he went mad, but still had periods of being lucid.”

“So they would beep me when he was lucid, and I would run to his room and do law tutorials.”

‘Catch and release’

The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe was an accidental book Godwin had never intended to write. It came about because in 2008, Robert Mugabe lost his own election.

“It’s uncanny how similar oppressive regimes are,” Godwin observes. “Mugabe had elections but they weren’t real elections – there were 100,000 votes from people over 100 years old in a country with the lowest life expectancy in the world, for instance.”

Mugabe however had underestimated his populace and it became apparent “that the vote against him was so overwhelming that he not stuffed enough ballot boxes.”

Godwin’s book was to be written “dancing on Mugabe’s political grave”, but shortly after he arrived the country’s politburo decided they couldn’t concede.

“So they launched a second round, and during the six week interim Mugabe essentially launched a war against his own people. They set up network of torture bases in schools – turned the schools into torture chambers. Then they brought in people who supported the opposition and tortured them very severely.”

The victims were released back into their own communities, giving rise to the description of that period: ‘The Fear’.

“It was ‘smart genocide’,” explains Godwin. “You don’t have to kill 800,000 people, like in Rwanda. If you kill the right few hundred people and torture the rest – to use an angling term, on a ‘catch and release’ basis – they go home and become human billboards, advertisements for political stigmata.”

Sneaking into hospitals and interviewing victims, at the time Godwin found it difficult to figure out what was really going on. But the picture eventually emerged: “This wasn’t spontaneous violence – this was planned, top-down hierarchical violence.”

Silence of the many

“There’s a fascinating study by a US NGO called Genocide Watch, which found that it is only ever a tiny number of people who participate in a genocide – there’s a few people who support but don’t participate, and a vast number of people who don’t do anything at all,” Godwin says.

“Ordinary people often don’t see themselves as morally compromised, but nudge a few of them and you can stop genocide.”

Nobody intervened to prevent Zimbabwe’s slide into chaos “because it lacks the two crucial exports that trigger intervention – terrorism and oil,” Godwin suggests.

Zimbabwe was not strategically important, “but it is important for what it represents,” he says.

“Zimbabwe was always held up as the great African success story, a country with a long life span, high literacy, efficient and not particularly corrupt. People would say: ‘yes, Africa can work.’ It was held up as a counterpoint to places like the Congo.”

When Zimbabwe went wrong, “it was a tragedy for the whole continent”, says Godwin.

“Mugabe was the head of a guerrilla war, and dominated the national stage for so long he developed a Messiah complex which made it difficult for people to judge what the country would be like without him.”

The book thus became in some ways a study of tyranny, “and how it is that these sorts of repressive authoritarian regimes start and what it takes for them to survive – and how ordinary people facilitate them.”


A big problem with dictatorships, Godwin notes, are “that they are not very good at transitioning.”

“If you have leader hogging the limelight for 28 years and they suddenly disappear, it’s quite possible that things will get worse in the short run; there may be violence between competing factions, and it is very volatile.”

There also exists the problem of what to do about transitional justice – a vast subject falling between the two clashing camps of ‘revenge’ and ‘reconciliation’, and mired in shades of grey.

“You can listen to each argument and be convinced by both,” says Godwin. “I think it is one of those things where you have to look at each case separately. But the thing that never works is not doing anything about it; moving on and pretending it hasn’t happened. Because that is one of the things that has gone wrong in Zimbabwe.

“It has festered. You can feel the people seething. And the weird thing is that the children of the people killed and tortured are even more taken up with the cause than the parents. It doesn’t fade away – it magnifies with the passing of generations.”

This takes the emphasis of the decision away from the victims, argues Godwin, and it should not.

“It’s very counterintuitive. The victims, who were put in jail and tortured – are the main victims who suffered during the authoritarian rule of a repressive regime. These people have the inherent right to decide what to do.

“You would imagine that these people would be the most radical, but a curious thing happens. In my experience – and I’m not alone, my view is shared by a lot of NGOs – the main thing that people who have been through the firing line want is acknowledgement. Not an ‘eye-for-an-eye’, just acknowledgement. The further you get away from the actual victims, the more radical you get. The people who didn’t risk their own lives in opposition – they don’t have the authenticity of victimhood. “

What countries grappling with the enormity of such problems must do “is ventilate”, he suggests.

“You have to bring it into the mainstream. You have to bring it into public debate. You have to basically talk it through. It’s odd that the solution turns out to be the ventilation of it, as it becomes acknowledged in the media and public discourse, and ultimately in the way people write their own history.”