Robert Mugabe and the Anatomy of Tyranny

Tyranny has a pattern of leadership that has been chronicled since ancient times. Tyrants exercise control by increasingly repressive methods, assisted by their close associates who become reluctantly or willingly complicit in their often criminal acts. Does theorising have any relevance to Zimbabwe’s situation today?

Jeff Schubert has made a study of tyrants. His powerful critique of the tyrant has been discussed in earlier posts in Leaders We Deserve. He believes that the tyrants may differ in context, but in other respects are aspects of a common pattern of repressive behaviours, be they on battle fields or board rooms.

He considers Mugabe a prime example of a tyrant. Commenting for Leaders We Deserve he noted:

Tyranny is not only associated with “criminal acts”.. even those tyrants and lieutenants who do engage in criminal acts, do not necessarily see it that way – they often think that they are doing good, and that some brutality is thus justified …perceptions change over time – Mugabe was once broadly seen is a much more positive light. Time in power almost totally obliterates the ability to see any difference between one’s own interests and the interests of the country

BBC’s political editor John Simpson has continued his high profile career as foreign journalist in a series of clandestine reports from within Zimbabwe. Simpson has largely let the facts speak for themselves.

Simpson’s report on the elections [June 2008] is stark.

It has been done with great brutality, but Robert Mugabe has achieved an extraordinary turnaround here.. Back in March, when the first round of voting took place, he was humiliated by being beaten into second place in the presidential race, and by losing the parliamentary election outright. Now he’s the sole effective candidate in Friday’s presidential run-off, and he cannot fail to win with an overwhelming majority.

His opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, has been completely outmanoeuvred. The outside world, which mostly sympathises with him, can do nothing whatever to help him


Simpson does not explain the moves which outflanked the MDC, only suggesting that Mr Tsvangirai had blundered in choosing to seek refuge in a European Embassy (the Dutch Embassy) rather than an African one. His report is one capturing his frustration.


The tyrant who has a long life is very skilful. The Overview of my book has some nice quotes on this – on Stalin etc — but I particularly like this one from Albert Speer which also highlights the role of caution in the success of the long-lived tyrant : “To the imagination of the outsider Hitler was a keen, quick, brutally governing dictator. It is difficult to believe that in reality he edged along hesitantly, almost fearfully. But that was the case.”

The dark side

The dark side of leadership has been an important if uncomfortable neck of the woods for theorists some while. Transformational theorists wrestled with the realization that a Hitler seemed to be manifesting many of the characteristics of the idealized transformational leader.

I am of the view that the idealization of leaders is a process which is well-explained by a socio-psychological treatment. By that I mean exploring the behaviours of the leader drawing on clinical models, particularly those exploring dysfunctional (psychotic) patterns. The behaviours are likely to impact on an organization. If we are talking about political and military leaders the impact may be on army, an orchestra a state or an entire continent. If we are talking cultural groups the impact of the dysfunctional leader may eventually weaken or destroy a media network, an orchestra, or a football team.

It should of course be added that there have been notorious examples of leaders who would be widely considered tyrannical, who had extremely negative effects on a wide range of people, but whose armies, orchestras, or organizations survived and even flourished beyond their tenures.

Mad, bad, dangerous?

According to Schubert

..the tendency is always the same … power becomes a narcotic … The people who .. allow themselves to be dominated [do so] because of the [personal] advantages… The basic result is always the same individual businesses, business associations, sporting clubs, institutions and government bodies of all kinds’.

Schubert is not concerned with older questions of whether the tyrants are mad, bad, or simply dangerous. He argues simply that tyrants dominate, and there is always a cadre who become sucked into compliance, becoming part of an apparatus of repression, and a social system of the oppressed.

While the tyrant may become the primary symbol of the oppression, we may expect to find henchmen whose loyalty is in part because the fall of the tyrant will also signify their own downfalls.

The bigger picture

Simple isn’t it? On one side the tyrant and cronies. The country in economic ruin, and with an AIDs epidemic that has been driven out of the main story. The oppressed people, displaced, and brutalized.

Many suggestions: military intervention. More sanctions. More direct denunciation of Mugabe from South Africa, from China, from anywhere. Nelson Mandela on the eve of his ninetieth birthday to reclaim moral leadership.

Update: Within hours of this post being prepared, Nelson Mandela administered a magnificent and brief comment on ‘the tragic lack of leadership’ currently, in South Africa’s neighbour Zimbabwe. The elections under Zimbabwe go ahead in bizarre and repressive circumstances.

To be continued …


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