On Gideon Rachman, ‘The mind of the dictator’, FT International Affairs Blog, April 4, 2008
What must be going on in the mind of Robert Mugabe? An interesting question. The honest answer is that we do not exactly know. But speculation is a wonderful mental exercise. And what we have learned about people with a violent past (tyrants and guerrilla leaders alike) gives us some clues.
Mugabe secured power through violence and has kept it by violent means for almost three decades. He will be determined to cling onto power. No matter what comes in his way, his basic instinct will be to crush it.
A dictator who survived through years of guerrilla war against Ian Smith and overcame formidable opponents like Joshua Nkomo has total belief in himself. Nothing he says or does is wrong.
Dead certainty is the most prominent trait of a dictator.
Tyrants are feared for their ruthlessness which makes them look powerful. But they are, in fact, quite insecure. And their insecurity makes it very difficult to contemplate giving up power.
As they approach the end, they tend to go deeper and deeper into their past, remember the time spent in prison, the skirmishes with security forces, the existence without food and shelter, their own sufferings and those of close comrades. Having emerged from such a long, dark period, it is impossible to contemplate returning to ordinary life, even worse isolation or prosecution if he stays in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe will have been thinking a lot in recent days, spent mostly in private or with close advisers. He will have been planning a great deal, to outwit the opposition in the next round of voting, or in whatever comes before or after that. He will probably confide in fewer people than before. As far as he is concerned, the fate of his country is forever linked to his own.
It may be difficult to believe, but authoritarian leaders are indecisive in the end. They cannot be sure of anything once they are not in control. They have become used to being one of the pack they lead. Group loyalty is very strong and outsiders are seen as enemies who are always wrong and who must be defeated. Any kind of compromise with the opposition cannot guarantee a dictator’s survival and survival is paramount.
Many experts in the media are tempted to make reckless predictions, but being predictive in this situation is risky. Those who really want Mugabe to go should give him every assurance that, as he nears the end of his long life and political career, he has no reason to fear revenge from his victims.
It is difficult to show magnanimity, but it is the need of the hour if bloodshed is to be avoided.