CALIGULA wanted to make his horse consul. Robert Mugabe wanted his wife, Grace, to take over from him as president of Zimbabwe. The comparison is a bit unfair. Caligula’s horse did not go on lavish shopping trips while Romans starved; nor was it accused of assaulting anyone with an electric cable in a hotel room. Grace Mugabe’s only qualification for high office was her marriage to Mr Mugabe, a man 41 years her senior with whom she began an affair while his first wife was dying. Her ambitions were thwarted this week when the army seized power, insisting that this was not a coup while making it perfectly clear that it was (see article).
Thus, sordidly, ends the era of one of Africa’s great dictators. Mr Mugabe has misruled Zimbabwe for 37 years. As The Economist went to press, he was in detention but unharmed. Even if he is allowed to keep his title, his power is gone. At 93, frail and forgetful, he has finally lost control of the country he ruined. The wonder—and the shame—is that he lasted so long. There is much to learn from the failure of his revolution.
Coup de Grace
Mr Mugabe was once widely admired (and still is, among those who think anti-imperialist rhetoric matters more than competence). He fought against white rule in the 1970s, in what was then called Rhodesia, and legitimately won an election in 1980. He preached reconciliation with the white former oppressors. Buoyed by aid, global goodwill and good harvests, the new country of Zimbabwe prospered for a while.
But like so many revolutionaries, Mr Mugabe could not tolerate any challenge to his rule. Viewing the second-largest ethnic group, the Ndebele, as disloyal, he used a minor insurrection as an excuse to crush them. In 1983 he unleashed his special forces (trained by North Korea) on the Ndebele, raping, torturing and murdering thousands of civilians. Survivors of village massacres were forced to dance on their neighbours’ mass graves, singing praise to the ruling party, Zanu-PF, in the language of the Shona majority. Unlike, say, Saddam Hussein or Idi Amin, Mr Mugabe did not particularly enjoy violence, but he never hesitated to use enough of it to stay in power.