About a month ago I went to my local bookstore in search of a particular tome on Sudan. While perusing the shelves, I came face-to-face with Robert Mugabe. His wizened visage stared out at me from the cover of Martin Meredith’s recently updated biography, practically mocking my ignorance of his no-doubt fascinating life. What an excellent opportunity to learn more about the man holding Zimbabwe hostage, I thought. I grabbed the book off the shelf and headed for the cash register (I never did find the book I was originally seeking. I was too excited to head home and dive into my new find). 

Well I dove in all right, but I could tell almost immediately that Mugabe wasn’t the gem that I thought it would be. I should be up front and state that I had certain expectations when I bought this book. One of them was that I would be educated in some detail about Robert Mugabe’s early life, educational background, and career as a freedom fighter. Meredith’s book did not give me the level of detail that I was looking for at all. I can understand if copious information is not available about Mugabe’s youth since many of the people who educated him may well be dead, but I’m sure that there must be people around to interview that could provide background on the time he spent in prison, as well as Ghana and Mozambique. After finishing the sections on Mugabe’s early life, I felt like I was left with a very rough sketch of what could have been a fantastic portrait. 

My feelings of dissatisfaction continued as I became further engaged in the book. Major events such as the 2005 Murambatsvina campaign (better known to foreigners as the episode where Mugabe razed urban slums leaving around 700,000 people homeless)  garnered only five pages of discussion. Similarly, there was minimal analysis of Zimbabwe’s involvement in Congo’s war or the horrifying Gukurahundi campaign. Nevertheless, I slogged through this book because it does provide some crucial insights (mostly in the form of Mugabe’s own quotes) into how such a promising man went so very bad.

Meredith’s quite simple thesis is that Mugabe is a man obsessed with power. He writes, “Power for Mugabe is not a means to an end, but the end itself.” He argues that Mugabe might have become a teacher (his desired profession) if not for the oppressive colonial regime under which he was born. While in prison Mugabe determine that the best course of action was to overthrow the whites and replace them with a one-party Marxist military regime. Mugabe never did get his forced victory over the white population (a negotiated settlement was reached), but he worked diligently to institute the one-party state that he had dreamed of for years. As I write, he is still working to achieve this goal.