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The icon that failed

The dictator's gaze. Robert Mugabe – from freedom hero to dictator
Forfatter: Stig Holmquist
Forlag: Carlssons Bokförlag (Sverige)
Stig Holmquist's biography of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe describes the fall the head of state underwent, from being the 60's liberation hero to the hated dictator of the 2000. Why did it go so wrong?


The liberation fighter Robert Mugabe was an important revolutionary icon for the 68s. His struggle against Prime Minister Ian Smith and the white settlers of Rhodesia stood as the most important and visible symbol of political liberation from European colonialization of Africa at the time.

The very framework of the fight in Rhodesia was media-friendly and easy to follow: A captive African-African rebel leads the fight against white settlers who control a rich and fertile part of Africa. The white settlers end up being expelled and the land distributed to poor Africans. It was easy to get sympathy with the new Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe. He became a revolutionary icon.

But Mugabe failed to make the transition from liberation fighter to statesman. The rich and formerly well-functioning Rhodesia became a corrupt society, the economy collapsed and Mugabe himself was transformed into a power-hungry dictator. Only after 37 years in power was Zimbabwe's 93 year old dictator forced to step down, following a military coup in November last year.

Random meeting

Sally Mugabe

The Swedish writer and filmmaker Stig Holmquist recently published the biography The dictator's gaze. Robert Mugabe – from freedom hero to dictator. The book's title refers to a random meeting Holmquist had with Mugabe in the elevator at the Intercontinental Hotel in Lusaka many years ago. Mugabe stared at the Swedish co-passenger in the elevator with a cold steel look. This look has haunted Holmquist ever since, now it has resulted in an exciting and very well written book.

Holmquist has previously written nearly twenty books, with themes from Africa and other continents. Several of these he wrote with his Norwegian wife, anthropologist and professor Aud Talle, who died a few years ago. He has also made numerous documentaries, including an award-winning film about Dag Hammarskjøld.


Holmquist's entrance card to Mugabe and his environment was a Swedish branch of Amnesty International. The local team was awarded Mugabe as "their" prisoner of conscience in the 60's by Amnesty in London. Back then, hardly anyone knew who Mugabe was, except that he was imprisoned by Ian Smidt. The local team sent him literature and some clothes. It was the beginning of a bond between Robert and Sweden.

Mugabe's matchmaker and wife Sally chose to leave Rhodesia and settled in London. It was she who maintained the connection with Sweden while her husband was imprisoned. She visited Sweden a number of times, giving lectures at schools around the country. Sally played an important political role when Mugabe became Zimbabwe's prime minister, and it was probably she who developed the idea that the new Zimbabwe should be built around a Nordic social model. This last – together with Mugabe's willingness to reconcile with former enemies, at least during his first years as prime minister – helped strengthen his position as an icon in the Nordic countries.

What about Zimbabwe?

Holmquist questions why things went so terribly wrong with Mugabe and Zimbabwe. He also brings in Mugabe's new wife, 31-year-old Grace, whom 74-year-old Mugabe married after Sally died of cancer. Grace was concerned with power and a life of luxury, trying to emerge as the natural successor of the aging Mugabe.

Holmquist's book is a must for Norwegian aid workers.

What will happen now, after Mugabe and Grace were forced to retreat to a luxurious house arrest? Will it allow for democratic development and more evenly distributed wealth of resource-rich Zimbabwe, or will the military retain control, as has been seen in, for example, Myanmar? Have decades of electoral fraud and corruption also left a mark on the politicians who will lead the country? Holmquist can only raise the questions.

Important book

Holmquist's book is very readable and a "must" for Norwegian aid workers to join the new phase that Zimbabwe is now entering. It is also a useful reminder and introduction to today's Africa, at a time when African issues are again being pushed into background in the Norwegian media in favor of foreign policy issues related to Trump, Putin, Iran, China and North Korea.

The book is also interesting to us who believed in Mugabe and paid tribute to him 40 years ago. Many of us may benefit from a self-critical look back.

Sverre Jervell
Sverre Jervell
Jervell (b. 1943) is a former Norwegian diplomat who, among other things, has worked in the Foreign Minister's secretariat and the Foreign Ministry's analysis department.

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