Robert Mugabe is not just one of the world’s oldest-surviving tyrants. He is perhaps one of his country’s oldest-surviving men – full-stop.
In, Zimbabwe, where the World Health Organisation records an average life expectancy of just 47 for men, Mr Mugabe last week celebrated a feat which would be impossible to replicate in the west: by reaching his 88th birthday, he has survived 87 per cent longer than one of his average male citizens can expect to.
If such a situation were to be repeated in the UK (where life expectancy is 80), this would make our head of state 150-years-old.
In large part, the country’s woeful longevity rates can be chalked up to economic mismanagement. But all too often, especially over the last decade, Amnesty International has charted instances of campaigners, union officials, even police officers, being killed not by poverty and disease, but directly by mobs or security agents, with the implicit support of the state.
At the moment, the human rights situation is less dire than in preceding years. But efforts to stifle political dissent, or protest at poor living conditions, mean campaigners still face intimidation – there have been 26 arrests made this year alone of activists belonging to a single group: Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA).
In the latest swoop by police, on February 7, police arrested nine WOZA members as they demonstrated peacefully outside a meeting between officials and WOZA leaders. In the process, police also detained five bystanders, including a pregnant woman.
The leaders of WOZA, a movement which celebrates its 10th birthday this year, are awaiting trial later this month on the charges of “kidnapping and theft”.
Other WOZA members were arrested in January, as well as media reform group MMPZ. None of this bodes particularly promisingly for human rights in the future.
Moreoever, the reportedly huge sums of cash being spent on his birthday bash somewhat fly in the face of the destitution he has deliberately heaped on hundreds of thousands of Harare residents, still reeling from the mass bulldozing of their neighbourhoods in 2005. The event, called the Operation Murambatsvina, forcibly evicted up to 700,000 people and demolished their settlements.
Many have been resettled in neighbourhoods called Operation Garikai settlements. Many are housed in temporary plastic shacks, put up in 2005 and not designed to be a long term solution. Ironically, Operation Garikai means “Better Life”. Often these new settlements are nowhere near schools and do not have decent healthcare facilities, something which has led in the past to alarming levels of baby deaths in at least one such encampment. Perhaps to add insult to injury, some have been threatened with eviction from these Garkai encampments as well, because they lack the cash to pay for a renewal of government-imposed leases.
As Mugabe himself admits: he’s not going to be around forever. But the abuses he has instigated are unlikely to end with his death or his leaving office: he has created a climate where a disregard for life has become endemic in his security forces – something that can take a generation to bleed out again.
Even if he were to pass away tomorrow, the grim legacies of his culture of lack of respect for the rule of law, and of terrible living conditions for many, are likely to continue for years to come.