After a year crammed with political challenges from the Movement for Democratic Change and endless media predictions of Robert Mugabe’s imminent demise, Zimbabwe’s perennially cocky dictator remained firmly in control. The country’s economy plunged further in 2008 than most analysts had thought possible. Africa’s equivocal mediation for change – highlighted by an ill-conceived September power-sharing agreement that left Mugabe doing all the hiring and firing – was barely alive while Western hopes for United Nations sanctions aimed at impoverishing Zanu-PF’s hierarchy had died in the Security Council.

Zimbabwe’s bankruptcy, including the highest rate of inflation in history and a rural population on the brink of starvation, did not deter Mugabe from shouting the old odds against Britain, blaming others at every turn as if his own cause were unassailable. The concern he had once exhibited for the welfare of his people had vanished, leaving him capable of absolutely any abuse in order to remain in power. Often eloquent, always arrogant and apparently enjoying the media’s attention in international forums despite arresting foreign correspondents at home, Mugabe continued to rule the roost. He simply swept aside the human rights accusations that had been piling up since the onset of his disastrous land-grab in 2000, carrying on as he pleased and as if he could do no wrong.

Early in the year, Mugabe lost the long-awaited presidential election to his rival Morgan Tsvangirai, although the opposition fell just short of winning 50% of the vote and the contest went to a second round. In cunningly distracting the watching world by delaying final vote counting for weeks during the run-up to a mandatory election run-off, Zimbabwe’s ever-resourceful leader gave himself time to organize his party militarily in traditionally loyal and easily intimidated rural areas. The ensuing vicious crackdown, aimed at both hardcore MDC voters as well as disabused Zanu-PF supporters, persuaded Morgan Tsvangirai to withdraw from the race on humanitarian grounds – and left Mugabe to claim victory.

The ageing president’s declining popularity at home had, however, weakened Mugabe’s dictatorship. The polls showed that he could be beaten, though not without a fight. African observer missions were critical of him for the first time. Yet despite looking humiliated once or twice, snoozing through vital meetings and appearing disorientated at times, he seemed not to have exhausted his supply of political tricks. I

n response to the important cracks emerging in the African leadership solidarity that had helped him retain power, Mugabe took to humiliating his African critics in closed meetings and then to rebuking Botswana’s premier publicly for turning against him. Rumours of disarray in his own ranks occasionally hinted at a possible uprising from within Zanu-PF but Mugabe successfully played one ambition against another in his own interests. By accurately exposing the double standards of Western leaders, Mugabe continued to convey the uncomfortable impression to all but his harshest Western critics that, despite the monster’s manifest brutality, much of what he said was true.

It was also thanks to the malleable nature of Zimbabwe’s opposition leader that Mugabe gained yet more time to plot his survival in 2008. After years of bitter rivalry, the two men talked agreeably when they met for a private dinner following the awkward public handshake that had first signaled their apparent commitment to power-sharing in July.

Morgan Tsvangirai – who has repeatedly suffered arrest and assault at the hands of Mugabe’s regime – described to me how the tension disappeared during their first one-on-one meeting. “A passer-by might have mistaken it for a lost father-son reunion,” Tsvangirai said. “Initially, there was tension between us but as we chatted about this and that and became more relaxed, I discovered that he was a human being after all.”

Only weeks earlier, scores of opposition supporters had been murdered and thousands assaulted during the bloodiest of election campaigns. But Tsvangirai said these traumatic events did not come between him and the 84-year-old Mugabe. “We chatted about family, about my mother, as well as about politics and the talks. Mugabe ate a lot and knew exactly what he wanted. He is very alert mentally but, physically, the age is telling.”

Tsvangirai was subsequently accused by some of his advisers of giving away too much at the secret 90-minute dinner with Mugabe. He told me it would be “unfair” to reveal the political details of his discussion with Zimbabwe’s president at Harare’s Rainbow Towers Hotel. But he said Mugabe was concerned about his place in history and genuinely worried about Britain’s alleged plots to oust him – a constant feature of Mugabe’s speeches. “I got the impression that he has a deep commitment to his legacy. I realized that he actually believes a lot of what he is saying; it’s not all said just for propaganda purposes. He is paranoid about the British. I think overall he wants to prove to them that he is right,” said Tsvangirai.

As for the British government, Morgan Tsvangirai discovered that Mugabe views Gordon Brown as an even more dedicated opponent than Tony Blair. “I said, ‘Why don’t you talk to them?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, Blair was bad enough but this Brown, he is even worse’.”

Although Mugabe has been responsible for thousands of deaths since he won power in 1980, the old leader appeared genuinely pained about how he is portrayed, according to Tsvangirai. “At one point Mugabe told me, ‘You know, some people say I’m a murderer. But I’m not. Let the two of us carry on eating together and showing that we can go forward in peace’.”

Mugabe seemed to have blanked out the brutality which has characterized his rule, stubbornly denying his own responsibility throughout the dinner. “It felt like a remarkably normal conversation most of the time, apart from his denial of the violence in Zimbabwe,” said Tsvangirai. “He seemed to be unaware or he feigned ignorance of the atrocities committed by his own people. I wondered if he was suppressing knowledge of something he was not comfortable with. Right up to the end of the dinner, I kept coming back to the issue of violence and he kept denying any knowledge of it.”

Only a week after this meeting, however, Mugabe gave a very different message. During the annual ceremony remembering the dead of the war against white rule, he said of the presidential campaign , “We used violence to defend what is ours.”

Such contradictions are typical of Mugabe’s mindset. He continually holds parallel positions, talking about the one as though the other does not exist. During the Eighties, he destroyed his first political rival Joshua Nkomo by drawing him into a so-called unity pact in much the same way as he tried to neutralize Tsvangirai in 2008. Confusingly, despite loathing the earlier opposition leader and treating him like dirt, Mugabe has piously laid red roses on Nkomo’s tomb at Heroes’ Acre in commemoration of their “hard-won unity” every year since Nkomo died in 1999.

The explanation for Mugabe’s habitual but unconscious double-dealing is that he simply cannot confront the truth about himself – his deprivation, his capacity for violence and murder, his stupidity, shortcomings and limitations. By dividing himself in such a way that one side of him does not know about the other, he is able to maintain a false and heroic view of himself. If the two sides were to meet, he would face humiliation in his own eyes – so this is never allowed to happen. Dividing himself is an elaborate, though not uncommon, self-deception that protects him from ever having to see what a failure he really is in relation even to his own ideals.

Tsvangirai recalls an amusing moment at the end of his dinner with Mugabe when the president ticked off an aide. Joking at the expense of the man who approached his octogenarian boss while Mugabe was scraping his ice cream bowl to tell him that it was time for bed, Mugabe looked up and said to Tsvangirai, “These are the dictators, not me. See how they tell me what to do.”

Zimbabwe’s opposition leader said he remained puzzled by Robert Mugabe’s capacity for double-think and denial – and his disconcerting charm. “I left the hotel wondering why Mugabe is so violent. Why does he resort to violence whenever he is cornered? Being in his company, I couldn’t imagine where the violent streak was: I think he suppresses it, even to himself. Or is it the people around him? He doesn’t seem as bad when you’re with him, but I know he was trying to manipulate me that night.”

Despite their friendly meeting, Tsvangirai initially refused to sign a power-sharing deal that left Mugabe in command of Zimbabwe’s government. But he insisted he felt “no sense of bitterness,” adding: “I actually have to admit that I have some respect for Mugabe, who used to be my hero.”

By mid-September, Tsvangirai had been arm-twisted into signing what was loudly hailed as a power-sharing breakthrough. Not surprisingly, Western governments were skeptical of the Zimbabwe president’s sincerity in offering a political partnership to the MDC. As a result, Europe and America’s promised revival of funding for Zimbabwe’s economy was not to be forthcoming until evidence of genuine power-sharing became apparent or until, preferably, Mugabe left office.

Britain’s Labour government under Gordon Brown did not mince its words when addressing the crisis in Zimbabwe during 2008, though some observers had privately hoped the departure of Tony Blair might provide an opportunity for discreet dialogue rather than the continuing and apparently sterile public condemnation of Mugabe.

Over the months, my own thoughts returned again and again to the three hours I had spent at State House in Harare waiting to interview Mugabe at the end of 2007. Sitting in the Victorian-styled drawing room beside Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba, who had gone from an angry confrontation in his office a couple of weeks earlier to ultra-friendly mode while we discussed the impending switch in South Africa’s leadership from pro-Mugabe Thabo Mbeki to potentially hostile Jacob Zuma, I was struck by the former journalist’s hunger for news of the outside world. At one moment in our free-ranging conversation, responding to my comment that Zanu-PF might want to approach its problems via diplomacy with, say, Britain, in the future, Charamba’s eyes widened and he lent forward, breathing heavily.

Do the British want to talk to us?

I threw my hands up in a gesture of helplessness, saying I had no idea if dialogue with the British was possible and explaining that I was simply putting forward an alternative to the strife of the recent past.

Did I want to share this idea with HE? Charamba asked, using the shorthand for His Excellency among Mugabe’s aides.

No, no, I replied, suddenly fearful of losing the interview I had set up laboriously over two years in favour of a half-baked discussion about the possibility of talks that might never occur. The matter was dropped because Mugabe walked in at that moment. My interview with him went ahead shortly afterwards as arranged. Nevertheless, Charamba’s intense and unexpected interest in talking to the British stayed with me.

I began to exploit the popularity of my book and its rare interview with Mugabe – which had been published in South Africa shortly before the March elections – to explore the idea of Britain intervening and acting in the best interests of suffering Zimbabweans despite their understandable reluctance to deal with Mugabe. Being the beleaguered country’s former colonial master, whose successful leverage in the immediate pre-independence period under Lord Soames persuaded Mugabe to act responsibly in his early days at the helm, I believe the British could make good use of their unique standing as the Zimbabwe president’s role model (whatever Mugabe might constantly claim to the contrary). Indeed, only the British, in my view, are in a position to influence Mugabe’s behaviour for the benefit of Zimbabweans, regardless of widespread insistence on African intervention. Mugabe has shown time and again that he does not listen to his fellow African leaders any more than he responds to the cries of his frightened citizens.

For months, I suggested to anyone who would listen that the British might consider talking to proud, prickly Mugabe rather than humiliating him further and thus fuelling his excesses. Since my opinions on Zimbabwe were at the time being sought not only by the media but also, to my surprise, by numerous diplomats from, among other countries, Britain and America, I spent many hours explaining in private and public meetings the absurdity of an author like me being considered the world expert on Robert Mugabe despite my having spent only two-and-a-half hours with him in 30 years, a situation which surely exposed the failure of international diplomacy in Zimbabwe. Many of the diplomats seemed to agree.

Knowing that Mugabe had been shunned and vilified by the West to such an extent that his government operated entirely outside and beyond the influence of supposedly concerned countries like Britain, I reasoned that my newfound access to key diplomats might offer an opportunity to encourage a back-channels approach to Zimbabwe’s dictator. An op-ed piece I wrote in the New York Times on 1 April, 2008 – entitled Make Peace With Mugabe and pointing out how existing ineffectual sanctions were being used by the regime to bolster its claim that all of Zimbabwe’s problems sprang from foreign interference – provoked some irate letters complaining of appeasement. The article also provoked further interest from journalists and diplomats, however. So I added to my growing list of reasons for constructive British engagement in Zimbabwe in the face of Africa’s dismal “quiet” diplomacy the notion that “appeasement” is only mollification if it fails: if it succeeds, it is a jolly good deed in an imperfect world.

I knew, of course, that the reason Britain did not care enough about Zimbabwe to have a go at breaking the deadlock (whereas, by contrast, the United States had been able to hold its nose long enough to talk to the ghastly North Koreans) was because Mugabe did not export terrorism nor produce oil nor have any immediate plans to make nuclear weapons.

In interviews published and broadcast all over the world, I suggested that cricket-loving Robert Mugabe with his immaculate suits and polished diction had not only modeled himself lifelong on an image once considered the height of human achievement – the English gentleman – but that his public hatred of Britain concealed a deep love for the Motherland. Indeed, since Mugabe’s childhood hero was a posh Anglo-Irish priest and the studious boy therefore imbibed British values at the expense of his Africanness, Mugabe is the very embodiment of British colonialism.

It was during South Africa’s Franschoek Book Festival, an annual event held in the Cape, that I received an invitation to meet Britain’s High Commissioner, the Rt Hon Paul Boateng, who had attended one of my talks. A charming man of Ghanaian ancestry, he seemed more of a politician than a diplomat. We talked about Zimbabwe’s enigmatic leader, initially skirting around my repeated and doubtless irritating calls for the British government to talk to Zimbabwe’s president. After a while, his voice took on a slightly aggrieved tone.

Our man in Harare has tried to contact Mugabe on a number of occasions but he hasn’t once received even a reply to our requests for a meeting.

With respect, High Commissioner, that’s because your man in Harare is too lowly for Mugabe.

Boateng winced but nodded thoughtfully as I told him how I believed a successful approach to Robert Mugabe might be set up. It would have to be made through a Briton Mugabe trusted, which was no easy call. Ideally, it would be someone like the late Lord Soames, who had genuinely liked the Zimbabwe premier when he endorsed him as the country’s ruler in place of Britain in 1980; a big man both literally and figuratively, who would not afraid of Mugabe and would not be intimidated by him. Furthermore, the right intermediary would have to be someone who was familiar with Zimbabwe and its history and, above all, someone who would treat Mugabe with respect. Perhaps not a man but a woman of social substance, such as the last governor’s widow, Lady Soames, whom Mugabe adored?

The High Commissioner shook his head firmly at the latter suggestion on the grounds that Lady Soames was not only elderly but in poor health. I had anticipated that she, having represented the Queen in Zimbabwe in the past, might look uncomfortably official to a government that was hyper-allergic to Robert Mugabe and determined not to give him an opportunity to mock conciliatory overtures – but I later confirmed that Mary Soames was indeed unwell.

Although Paul Boateng undertook to convey my ideas to the Foreign Office and to contact the suggested intermediary, I heard no more from him. It was while persisting with earlier attempts to persuade Britain’s Africa Minister Lord Malloch-Brown, through a variety of sources, to restore diplomatic contact with Mugabe that a newfound friend from the British High Commission rang me out of the blue one evening to say she was bringing a member of a visiting British government delegation, who had just read and enjoyed my book about Mugabe, for a drink at my guest house in Johannesburg.

The smiling woman who soon afterwards walked into The Melville House was Labour’s junior health minister, the Rt Hon Dawn Primarolo MP. With a social service rather than a purely political background, she listened keenly to my suggestions. Looking genuinely concerned at the plight of Zimbabweans, she cautioned that protocol required her to clear any further discussion on the subject with the High Commissioner. So I was surprised, early the following morning, to receive an invitation to meet her at a Pretoria guest house that evening.

When I arrived, the small, exclusive establishment with more than its usual complement of security guards was abuzz with British civil servants and assorted South Africans milling around as they waited to be transported to the High Commission for a reception to be addressed by the Foreign Secretary David Miliband. I was told to travel there with Dawn Primarolo and her private secretary in a chauffeur-driven Jaguar.

As soon as we drew up outside Britain’s lavish headquarters, I was whisked up a short flight of central, open stairs by Paul Boateng in party mood. Seated at a table in a glass room just out of view of the noisy gathering below, I turned as a tall, raven-haired man strode towards me from a doorway on the other side of the stairs. He was wearing a dark suit and a turquoise-striped shirt. Lit to perfection, the young intellectual who is sometimes tipped as a future leader of Britain’s Labour Party looked so dashing amid the stylish architecture that I felt for a moment as if I were in a Rolex commercial.

David Miliband, he announced, shaking my hand briskly.

I gave him a copy of my book, which he opened immediately without looking at me. Hesitating for a moment as he paged through Dinner With Mugabe, I wondered why he didn’t so much as glance my way, suspected he was a cold man rather than a shy one, and then quickly addressed my proposal to the top of his head. When I mentioned that successful dialogue with Robert Mugabe would rely on the old dictator being treated respectfully because Mugabe craves recognition by the British above all else, David Miliband shot me an irritable look. All the British would ever have to say to Mugabe was, ‘Get out of office,’ he snapped.

Idid not have time in the 20-minute meeting with Miliband to explain why respect for Mugabe is not the same as appeasement. Respecting him would mean acknowledging the elaborateness of his self-deception while maintaining a firm position on the truth. It would mean standing up to his omnipotence by talking about his abuse and the way he covers it up by portraying himself in his own eyes as a hero. Whoever confronted Mugabe on behalf of the British would have to go to Harare determined to withstand his rage without backing down.

The self-protective psychological mechanisms are so powerful in Mugabe that even a sworn enemy can become caught up in the delusion when he is “the hero”. For a while, he can convincingly become the kindly, benign figure. That is why Morgan Tsvangirai hardly remembered the callous murderer and cruel bully during his dinner with Mugabe. It is why Mugabe is so dangerous: because for him, and for the person talking to him, the savage, destructive part is so well hidden that one might almost believe it did not exist.

Without the time to argue my case to David Miliband, it was clear to me that he was struggling to believe that Robert Mugabe might be persuaded to behave better by the British – and that they therefore owed it to the Zimbabwean people to talk to him, or at least to try. When I asked if he thought my proposal worthless, however, he replied perfunctorily that nothing was a waste of time when lives were at risk. After I had explained exactly why I feared Mugabe might be the cause of many more deaths before finally relinquishing power, he relented, took a notepad from his inside jacket pocket, wrote down the name of the intermediary I had suggested and promised to put him in touch with the Foreign Office.

On his way to welcome the assembled guests who were watching us descend the stairs, David Miliband turned to me, smiled for the first time and asked what subject I planned to tackle after Mugabe. I told him I was considering a new book entitled “Out to Lunch With Ahmadinejad”. He laughed, knowing it was a pointed joke and perhaps taking me seriously for the first time. Interestingly, Britain’s opposition Conservative Party put Dinner With Mugabe onto a mandatory reading list for its MPs shortly afterwards. Some observers, including Mugabe himself, have noted that the Tories have more interest in British history and tend to understand the consequences of colonialism better than Labour. So I was left wondering if a visit to David Cameron, a likely future prime minister of Britain, might be worth pursuing on behalf of the Zimbabweans who face death under Mugabe’s continued misrule.

Whether led by Labour or the Tories, Britain is likely to carry on hoping that Africa will persuade Mugabe to step aside. The September axeing from South Africa’s presidency of Thabo Mbeki, the continent’s mediator in Zimbabwe, left two burning questions unanswered at the end of 2008: would Mbeki’s successors in the big regional power next door be more willing to put pressure on Mugabe by, say, closing the border between the two countries? And if so, would Mugabe then capitulate, bearing in mind his indifference to the plight of his own people?

I am often asked if Robert Mugabe has read the book I wrote about him. The answer is I don’t know but I imagine that, being narcissistic, he has it permanently beside his bed. The hand-delivered copy I sent him was certainly given to HE, according to George Charamba’s personal assistant. The only feedback I have ever had from the Office of the President, though, was an article in The Herald, a government daily in which Charamba regularly writes, complaining that I had portrayed Zimbabwe’s leader as a Prozac case. I resisted the impulse to write to the editor expressing my fervent wish that a truckload of emotionally soothing drugs had been delivered to State House in time to avert the destructive behavior that has wrecked Zimbabwe.

On a visit to Mugabe’s depressed country in August, I delivered to Charamba’s office a couple of copies of an op-ed piece I had penned in the previous day’s edition of Johannesburg’s The Star. Written specially for Mugabe, it exhorted him to reawaken the statesmanship he exhibited during his first years in office, after Lord Soames persuaded him to serve the best interests of his country by including his opponents in a government of authentic national unity. “Could this intensely complicated man make a similarly magnanimous decision so late in his much-vilified premiership?” I wrote. “It is an audacious idea, and an uncharacteristically constructive one in the face of the sustained destruction Mugabe has unleashed on Zimbabwe over the past decade. But it is within his power to opt for the greater good rather than continued tyranny.”

Equally, it would be admirable if the British were big enough to get over their need to be right, accept that they are not blameless in Zimbabwe, and focus on bringing about the change they want to see in the country. If the desired outcome entails talking to Mugabe and treating him with the respect he clearly wants, so be it. Innocent lives spared in Zimbabwe ought to justify pride swallowed in Britain. That Robert Mugabe does not deserve to benefit from such altruism is indisputable, but so is the sad desperation of thousands of Zimbabweans.

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