Review: The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin

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TheFearThe Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin (2010, Little, Brown)

Blurb: Journalist Peter Godwin has covered wars. As a soldier, he’s fought them. But nothing prepared him for the surreal mix of desperation and hope he encountered when he returned to Zimbabwe, his broken homeland. 

Godwin arrived as Robert Mugabe, the country’s dictator for 30 years, has finally lost an election. Mugabe’s tenure has left Zimbabwe with the world’s highest rate of inflation and the shortest life span. Instead of conceding power, Mugabe launched a brutal campaign of terror against his own citizens. With foreign correspondents banned, and he himself there illegally, Godwin was one of the few observers to bear witness to this period the locals call The Fear. He saw torture bases and the burning villages but was most awed as an observer of not only simple acts of kindness but also churchmen and diplomats putting their own lives on the line to try to stop the carnage.

THE FEAR is a book about the astonishing courage and resilience of a people, armed with nothing but a desire to be free, who challenged a violent dictatorship. It is also the deeply personal and ultimately uplifting story of a man trying to make sense of the country he can’t recognize as home.

Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) was, for many years, Africa’s success story. After a bloody war of independence, under the new government Zimbabwe’s infrastructure and educational and health-care systems were excellent (the country’s HIV/AIDS prevention and education programs were routinely referred to as models for the rest of Africa), corruption was relatively controlled, and racial tensions seemed to be a thing of the past. But as the new millennium began, this all came apart: race-based “land reform” led to the collapse of the country’s agriculture—no longer a major exporter of grain and other crops, Zimbabwe’s economy foundered. Human rights abuses were common—systemic, even—with journalists and opposition party members being targeted. Inflation skyrocketed, measured in the quintillions by 2008, when Robert Mugabe and his ruling party, ZANU-PF, blatantly manipulated election results in order to maintain power.  Zimbabwe became a failed state.

Peter Godwin grew up in Zimbabwe—then Rhodesia—and was drafted into the army during the civil war. His book Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa tells this story. Godwin left Zimbabwe and became a journalist (he was foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times and has worked with the BBC, the New York Times, and other publications). He returned over the years to visit his aging parents, and he chronicles the nation’s slide into economic and political chaos in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir. Both books are well worth reading, and both are intensely personal. The Fear is political: Godwin describes the events of 2008–2009, known locally as “the Fear,” the presidential elections and the violent aftermath leading up to the formation of the Government of National Unity, or GNU. This is not the story of Godwin or his family, who have all left Zimbabwe; this is the story of the people who remain, and who continue to fight against Mugabe’s dictatorship. As Godwin says: “I am bearing witness to what is happening here—to the sustained cruelty of it all. I have a responsibility to try to amplify this suffering, this sacrifice, so that it will not have happened in vain.”

The Fear is a difficult book to read. It’s full of violence and horror and injustice. As the oldest head of state in Africa, Robert Mugabe continued to maintain a high level of respect for liberating Zimbabwe: African leaders would not censure him. Because the violence was one-sided (i.e., not a civil war), the international community was unwilling to intervene. Godwin doesn’t make any claims of impartiality—he is solidly against Mugabe’s dictatorship, which he describes as a guerilla movement that maintains its military tactics, seemingly unable to make the transition to a system of law and order.

The Fear was published in March 2011. In March 2013, after a delay of almost two years, the voters of Zimbabwe approved a new constitution, one that would allow a president only ten years in office (two five-year terms) and that would eliminate veto powers over the parliament. The country’s courts have mandated that presidential elections be held before 31 July—and Robert Mugabe is a candidate.

My rating: 5 stars

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