After more than three decades in power, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is facing one of his biggest tests yet. On July 31, Mugabe will go head to head with long-time opposition leader and current Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in what is already proving to be a highly vitriolic presidential election.
Zimbabwean presidential elections are infamously undemocratic. Few places in the world have witnessed so much election fraud, cronyism, and political intimidation. During the last round of presidential elections in 2008, amid rampant and systemic suppression of opposition leaders, Mugabe still lost the first round to Tsvangirai by several percentage points. The run-off elections were a widely condemned joke: Mugabe inexplicably doubled his vote total, reportedly winning well over 80 percent of the vote despite reports of extremely low voter turnout.
This time around, the presidential election has seen a new level of political mudslinging. In particular, Mugabe’s well-oiled propaganda machine — chiefly the state-run news agencies — have ramped up attacks on Tsvangirai’s sexual escapades following his wife’s death in 2009. The embattled prime minister reportedly fathered a child with a 22-year-old out of wedlock, all while dealing with a court battle with another lover. In addition, his historically liberal stance on same-sex marriage has proven to be a favorite talking point among Mugabe's socially conservative loyalists.
Yet, among all the political bluster and indignation, it is Mugabe himself who has been the center of scandals throughout his presidency. Some of these examples pale in comparison to Tsvangirai's sexual exploits.
He and his wife have some issues of their own:
Mugabe (L) and his wife Grace (R) attend the burial ceremony for a retired lieutenant general. (Desmond Kwande/Getty Images)
Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Mugabe’s smear campaign against Tsvangirai is his own well-documented marital infidelity. While Mugabe’s first wife, Sally Hayfron, was on her deathbed suffering from a chronic kidney disease, he was engaged in an affair with his then-secretary, Grace Marufu, whom he impregnated even before his wife had died. Four years after his wife’s death, Ms. Marufu — who is 41 years younger than Mugabe — became the First Lady of Zimbabwe.
Grace Mugabe has recently been dealing with allegations of infidelity herself. The Daily Mail reported in 2010 that rumors had been circulating that Mrs. Mugabe and the head of the Zimbabwe’s Central Bank, Gideon Gono, were engaged in extramarital relations. Although the rumors were later disputed, it was not the first time that the first lady had faced such accusations.
He is seriously — and unabashedly — homophobic:
Activists in Paris protest Mugabe's harsh policies toward homosexuals. (Bernard Bisson/Getty Images)
It should come as no surprise that the man who once referred to homosexuals as “worse than pigs and dogs” has brutally outlawed any kind of homosexuality in Zimbabwe. Although his fiery homophobic rhetoric resonates with some in the deeply religious and socially conservative African nation, the extreme nature of his nationwide crackdown on homosexuals is seen by some as a political smokescreen to distract from the greater economic woes plaguing the country.
The international uproar over Mugabe’s homophobia has steadily increased since the anti-gay movement began in 1995. With the increased acceptance of same-sex marriages all across the western world, both European and American governments have ramped up their threats against the Zimbabwean government. Last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that civil treatment for LGBT communities should be a prerequisite for receiving aid from the UK. Mugabe called Cameron’s comments “satanic.”
His land reform sparked racial tensions and led to hyperinflation:
A Zimbabwean man holds a new five hundred million dollar note. (Desmond Kwande/Getty Images)
When Mugabe first came to power as prime minister in 1980, he brought with him new ideas on how to reallocate Zimbabwe’s arable land. Known as the “willing seller, willing buyer” program, the British government agreed to fund a Mugabe-led effort to buy land from the white minority — who comprised 1 percent of the Zimbabwean population, yet owned the vast majority of usable land — at market prices, so long as the transaction was mutually agreed upon by both sides. The initial motive was to resettle disenfranchised black communities on economically viable land in an effort to bring economic parity to Zimbabwe.
The result was a disaster. After the "willing seller" clause expired, Mugabe began forcibly seizing land from the white minority at below market prices, sometimes under threat of violence. Yet even with the reforms and illegal seizures, in 2000 whites still owned about 70 percent of the arable land, owing in large part to the gross misuse of funds by the Mugabe government. The United States, in protest against these unlawful actions, introduced a credit freeze against the already poor nation in 2001, forcing the Zimbabwean dollar into uncontrollable hyperinflation.
Zimbabwe’s involvement in the Second Congo War was condemned as a sham:
A child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007. (Lionel Healing/Getty Images)
Robert Mugabe’s decision to send Zimbabwean troops into the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1998 was met with great suspicion from international observers, especially considering the dire economic straits Zimbabwe was facing at the time. Although Mugabe claimed regional stability was his ultimate goal, the lack of geographic proximity between the two nations — not to mention the absence of any real security threat to Zimbabwe — left many experts doubtful of his explanation.
Indeed, Mugabe’s ulterior motive for entering the war was much more devious. The government of the DRC promised exclusive joint business ventures, land grants, and other tangible monetary rewards to Zimbabwe as recompense for their military intervention. With Zimbabwean help, the war did eventually come to a close, but not before many millions had died.
The opposition is treated as less than human:
A house is destroyed in 2005 as part of Mugabe's clean-up campaign. (Getty Images)
Dissent is not exactly welcomed within Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. The civil liberties of those who openly oppose Mugabe — particularly freedom of assembly, due process, and the right to private property — are all essentially non existent. Chief among the dissenting groups are those who have benefited the least from Mugabe’s fiscally irresponsible reign, namely the urban and rural poor.
At no point during Mugabe’s presidency was this oppression more evident than during the infamous Operation Murambatsvina in 2005. Colloquially known as “Operation Drive Out Rubbish,” the mission statement was clear: demolish the poor slums to punish those undesirables who dared to oppose the president. Hundreds of thousands were made homeless during the operation, which drew widespread condemnation from the surrounding African community.