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Mugabe's slow fall from grace

Tomorrow, Zimbabwean voters make up their minds on the man once heralded as Africa's paragon of progress.

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Robert Mugabe was once praised by Nelson Mandela and Western leaders as a democratic exemplar.

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The former high school teacher - with degrees in economics, history, education, and law - was known as the "thinking man's guerrilla," leading his people to freedom from British rule, and nationhood in 1980.

But as Zimbabweans head to the polls in a hotly contested presidential election this weekend, President Mugabe is now seen by many as a dictator in decline - deserted by old allies, denounced by former admirers.

In some ways, Mugabe's trajectory is a familiar parable in post-colonial Africa. Twenty-two years of power without any opposition can corrupt a man, says Joseph Ayee, a political scientist at the University of Ghana. "This is repeated time and again - when African leaders get to office they soon forget why they went there."

One of the reasons for this phenomenon, says Professor Ayee, is that "our leaders are not recruited out of civil society. They come from the military, where they are trained in the cult of personality," he says. They are not taught to think about the will of the people, Ayee contends. "The military does not teach you that."

But others close to Mugabe say that's only part of the story. They say after the death of his first wife, he changed. And yet others say the world beyond Zimbabwe never saw Mugabe accurately.

In the early 1960s, Mugabe left his job as a high school teacher to join the struggle against Ian Smith and the white-minority rule in then-Rhodesia. He was promptly imprisoned for 10 years.

Freed in 1975, he continued the fight from nearby Mozambique, becoming a leader of the bloody campaign against Mr. Smith. Under a peace settlement which allowed for elections that included the black majority, Mugabe was overwhelmingly elected the country's first prime minister.

Initially, he preached racial reconciliation and invited the white commercial farmers who formed the backbone of the economy to stay. He also impressed in other ways - battling illiteracy, disease, and poverty - gaining international praise and recognition. At independence in 1980, fewer than 50 percent of Zimbabweans could read and write. Today, Zimbabwe is one of Africa's most educated populations with a literacy rate topping 85 percent.

But Zimbawe - and Mugabe - took a turn for the worse, say analysts, in the late 1990s. Economic growth slumped, aid slowed, graft and patronage became the order of the day. The military entered into an expensive war in Congo.

After top party officials looted a fund intended to compensate veterans of the liberation war, Mugabe pacified the vets with promises of land - encouraging them to seize it from white commercial farmers, often violently, without compensation.

Today, the economy is in ruins, food is in short supply, educated professionals are fleeing, and the international community is threatening sanctions.

Personal reasons explain Mugabe's recent behavior, says Robert Rotberg of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Mr. Rotberg says the death of Mugabe's first wife, Sally, had a profound effect on him. A strong, intellectual woman, she stood by his side throughout his years of struggle. "She was a break on him, his super-ego," says Rotberg. "No one else could tell him - no, don't be stupid."

After Sally died nine years ago, Mugabe got remarried to his secretary, 40 years his junior. "I don't want to pin it all on his second wife. But everyone, including those close to Mugabe, claim she changed his character," says Rotberg. His only child with Sally died while he was in prison. He's had three more children with Grace. "His priorities have changed. He has a family now. He is establishing a dynasty."

But the most common explanation for Mugabe's "transformation" has to do with perceptions. "I knew he was a fraud," says Wilfred Mhanda, the former No. 2 commander in the liberation resistance army. "He was always power- hungry, always selfish." Mugabe is not a racist, insists Mr. Mhanda, "but he is an opportunist, and turning on the whites is the only opportune thing he can think of now."

"The ideals we fought for - democracy and human rights, everything that we were denied by Ian Smith and the whites - were betrayed by Mugabe," Mhanda says. Mugabe's shiny image, argues Mhanda, was a creation of a West blinded by its desire to point to an African success story. "They overlooked all his faults and all the menacing signs," he says.

"We got independence at the peak of apartheid," notes Brian Kagoro, director of Crisis in Zimbabwe, a civic-society umbrella organization here. "The rest of the world found stability here at that time, sighed in relief, and just said, 'Oh, democracy is working'. In fact it was not. It was always an autocratic state."

Today Mugabe seems to be trying to reinvigorate his flagging popularity by reminding voters of his role as a liberation fighter and hammering on the antiwhite, anticolonial themes of that struggle. And there is resentment among the black population over the fact that, until two years ago, about 4,000 whites owned half the best farmland in the country.

But many of the opposition supporters are young men and women who know little about the history and themes of the war - but who have benefited from the freedom and education that war brought.

"In a way, Mugabe dug his own grave," says Zimbabwean political scientist Masiphula Sithole. "By giving his people education, he gave them the tools to understand that it is corruption and mismanagement which is dragging the country down - not any other nonsense."

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