Strategies for power and control

The Big Saturday Read: Robert Mugabe at 93 - The Art of Power

Alex T. Magaisa

February 18, 2017

Zimbabwe’s long serving leader, President Robert Mugabe turns 93 next week. He has been in power for 37 years, having assumed leadership in 1980, when the Southern African country got independence from Britain. By then he had already served two decades in the political trenches. As he celebrates his 93rd birthday, he has spent about 60 years in active politics, more than half of them as the leader. He has been at the helm of ZANU PF for 40 years. Next year, Zimbabwe holds national elections. He will be 94 and he plans to run again. His party, ZANU PF has already confirmed him as its presidential candidate. Should he win that election and serve the full term he would be 99 by the end of it, just one year short of a century. He would probably set the record for the longest serving President, one that would probably never be beaten in the modern era.

His record in power has been both remarkable and disastrous. Few political figures divide opinion as Mugabe does – he has a loyal fan base that holds him in high esteem and an equally critical constituency that holds him as the ultimate villain. Once a beacon of hope when he gained power in 1980, Zimbabwe has fallen down the pecking order in dramatic fashion under Mugabe’s charge. It now stands in the lower echelons, regarded as one of the poorest countries in the world. It holds the world record for the first hyperinflation of the 21st century. It was forced to abandon its currency in 2009. The economy is in terminal decline. Large numbers of young Zimbabweans have departed in search of greener pastures. Neighbours like Botswana which were miles behind in 1980, have since overtaken Zimbabwe in terms of development and promise.

Yet, despite the myriad of problems burdening the country, Mugabe continues to reign with relative ease and comfort. He is so relaxed that he can afford to take a month-long family holiday away in the Far East, while the country burns. Zimbabweans joke that he occasionally pays visits to the country since he spends a lot of time on foreign trips. His counterparts who have served for lengthy periods, like President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola, are not as adventurous. Dos Santos often sends ministers to represent him at regional summits of SADC and the AU, while Mugabe is ever present, however minor the occasion might be. The difference probably is that Mugabe has nothing to worry about in his backyard.

How though, in light of the deep challenges that Zimbabwe has been facing over the years, has Mugabe managed to retain power for so long – carving up a status as the ultimate political survivor? why is he so comfortable and relaxed in the midst of the inferno engulfing his country? How has one man held so much power over a country for so long and against so many odds? Much has been said and written about Mugabe’s brand of politics, how he came to power and how he has kept power. There have also been premature and false pronouncements of his demise.

The purpose of this article is to look at Mugabe's lengthy reign from a strategic point of  view. What strategies has Mugabe employed in order to stay in power for so long? This is no mean exercise, given the length of his career and the complexity of politics under his watch. This is a modest effort that summarises the major strategies that have characterised Mugabe's rule. In writing this, I have drawn from various works on strategy but I focus more on Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and the more modern work of Robert Greene, whose popular work on strategies of war and laws of power also draws on ancient strategists and philosophers. It will become apparent that Mugabe employs an eclectic mix of strategies and it might be said he is a faithful student of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu.


According to Sun Tzu, “all warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” War is a constant feature in the conduct of human affairs. When most people hear the word “war”, they think of guns, fighting and killing. But the conduct of human affairs is based on the same principles underlying the conduct of war and therefore the strategies of war apply to various aspects of life. Even in religion, there is war - between good and evil, between God and Satan, between love and hate, and so on.

“Pretend to be weak,” adds Sun Tzu, “that [the enemy] may grow arrogant.” Feign weakness when in fact you are strong. To this, Greene adds his Law 3 of Power, “Keep people off-balance and in the dark by never revealing the purpose behind your actions. If they have no clue what you are up to, they cannot prepare a defence. Guide them far enough down the wrong path, envelope them in enough smoke, and by the time they realize your intentions, it will be too late.” Sun Tzu adds, “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt”. Machiavelli also advises on the strategy of deception, but more on that later.

It seems this law is made for and by Mugabe himself. He is notoriously secretive and does not give away much. This means those around him are constantly in the dark. They have no clue what he would be thinking at any given time. During the Inclusive Government, up until he issued regulations proclaiming election date and electoral law amendments in June 2013, his partners in government had no idea what he was thinking, even though he used to meet his fellow principals each week. Sometimes, ZANU PF Ministers would approach Morgan Tsvangirai, the Prime Minister, to find out what their own boss was thinking on particular issues.

The strategy of deception meant Mugabe could say one thing, while doing the very opposite. This is not only against external opponents, but also within his own party. Right now, none of them is any wiser about his succession plans. They probably cannot even get meetings with him. This secrecy is consistent with Greene’s Law 17 of Power, “Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability”. If you are predictable, others will be comfortable. Greene recommends that you must be “deliberately unpredictable” as this keeps others off-balance. “Taken to an extreme,” says Greene, “this strategy can intimidate and terrorize”. Thus, Zimbabweans think they are terrorised by his leadership, but his own colleagues in government and the party are in worse position as they have immediate interests but are kept in the dark.

The fox and the lion

In keeping with the theme of deception, which Mugabe uses to great effect, according to Machiavelli, while it is commendable for a ruler to keep his promises and to live an upright life, great rulers are those who are cunningly deceptive.  In his advice to The Prince, Machiavelli wrote, “a prudent ruler cannot keep his word, nor should he, when such fidelity would damage him. And when the reasons that made him promise are no longer relevant.” In his view, this advice would be irrelevant if all people were upright. However, “because they are treacherous and would not keep their promises to you, you should not consider yourself bound to keep your promises to them”.  One can either use law or force but since law is often ineffective, one must have recourse to force.

In this regard, Machiavelli advises that a ruler must imitate beasts, which are accustomed to the use of force, while making use of law only in appropriate circumstances. He recommends that a ruler must be both human and beast in nature as one is ineffective without the other. Acting like a beast means a ruler must imitate both the fox and the lion, both of which have different but effective qualities. Lions have immense power but they can be easily trapped while foxes do not have the power but they are more deceptive and therefore harder to trap. Therefore, according to Machiavelli, “one needs to be a fox to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten away wolves. Those who rely merely upon a lion’s strength do not understand matters.”

Mugabe is very adept at this Machiavellian game of imitating the fox and the lion. As we have already seen, he uses the strategy of deception very well. But he also has a violent streak and has no hesitation to use extreme force to devour his enemies, just like the lion. Machiavelli says deceptions are effective because people are generally naïve by nature. “Men are so naïve and so much dominated by immediate needs, that a skilful deceiver always finds plenty of people who will let themselves be deceived.” This is why a leader can say one thing while doing the opposite. In 1980, Mugabe preached reconciliation and while he was showered with praises around the world for all the good talk, Operation Gukurahundi was going on in Matebeleland and the Midlands, leaving thousands dead, maimed and displaced. Before the 2013 elections, Mugabe was probably the foremost exponent of peace and non-violence, but his troops were wreaking havoc in the rural areas, reminding people of the violence they could inflict.   

His political career has been characterised by a complex interplay between law and force. A lawyer by training, Mugabe likes to be seen to be playing by the rulebook, but he makes sure the rulebook is written in his favour. He will even make retrospective legislation to legalise past misdeeds. In this way, he gives a side that is devoted to the law, but really, it is not rule of law as it is often understood in the substantive sense. It is rule by law, in which the law is used to legitimise otherwise arbitrary and authoritarian acts.

However, he is also very comfortable with the use of extreme force. He takes pride in it, at one point claiming to possess “degrees in violence”. Gukurahundi, Operation Murambatsvina, the 2008 election violence, the brutal removal of diamond panners in Chiadzwa in 2007, the violent suppression of citizens’ movement in 2016 all evidence a man who has no hesitation when it comes to using force. He inherited a brutal security system from the colonial state but instead of dismantling it at independence, he kept it intact and over the course of time strengthened it.  

Please click on the link below the conclusion to read Alex Magaisa’s complete article which is long, but absolutely fascinating.


There is much to be said about Mugabe’s art of keeping power. 37 years in power is a long period of time. One of the things is does well is to get others to do the dirty work while taking the credit and warding off guilt. It’s people like (Emmerson) Mnangagwa and (Perence) Shiri who are blamed for Gukurahundi, even though Mugabe was the leader.

Sun Tzu says in war, a leader must have knowledge of himself, his enemy and the terrain. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Mugabe has mastered this art so well.

He can appear generous but he uses deception. He deploys infiltrators to destroy from within and uses divide and rule to great effect, as the opposition and factions in his own party testify. He rewards those around him and ensures that they fight for his cause. He has made himself the centre of power and claims the moral high ground, transforming his political survival into a moral crusade. He has built a cult following. But above all, he is cunningly deceptive. It is his ability to use law and force, to be man and beast at the same time that has served him well. 

   Further reading:

Machiavelli, The Prince Edited by Quentin Skinner and Russell Price

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power

Robert Greene, 33 Strategies of War