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The Trial of Robert Mugabe - A review of Chielo Zona Eze's
Pucherova, Pambazuka News
September 10, 2009
How do you write a novel
about genocide? In the Zimbabwean context, several writers have
attempted to engage artistically with the Matabeleland massacre
of 1981-86 in which Mugabe's regime dealt with ‘dissidents',
including Chenjerai Hove in Shadows (1991) and Alexander Kanengoni
in Echoing Silences (1997), but it was Yvonne Vera's lyrical
feat, The Stone Virgins (2002), that for the first time assigned
sole responsibility for it to the Zanu PF government. With that
government still in power, such an act was not without its risks.
Saluting the postcolonial idea that writers are also historians,
and fictions are often truer than the ‘truth', Chielo
Zona Eze borrows many of his characters from Vera's novel.
Placing them alongside eye-witness accounts published on public
internet sites such as YouTube, in The Trial of Robert Mugabe he
brings to life the unheard voices of the victims of Mugabe's
29 years in power.
The narrative frame is
the trial of the 85-year-old dictator, who is facing God's
justice on the Last Judgment Day. On the divine jury are no other
than Yvonne Vera (1964-2005), whose attempts at healing the wounds
of Zimbabwean history through exposing its taboos gained her international
recognition; Dambudzo Marechera (1952-1987), the enfant terrible
of Zimbabwean writing who had predicted the country's destiny
with a Cassandra accuracy; Steve Biko (1946-1977), the martyr of
the South African apartheid; and Chief Justice Olaudah Equiano,
the 18th century Igbo writer and slave abolitionist. As a series
of testimonies by victims of the Zanu PF regime unrolls, Mugabe
looks on uncomprehendingly. His denials of history and self-glorification
as Zimbabwe's ‘liberator', however, do not upend
the trial, whose real purpose is healing and reconciliation through
collective remembering. Working from the epigraph's premise
‘Those who are
picked for trial are sometimes just symbols for wider phenomena',
Eze's novel thus performs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission
in the Zimbabwean context.
The issue Eze cannot
avoid is one of authority. While Vera and Marechera, both critics
of Mugabe's power abuses, are cast here as the moral conscience
of the nation, Eze, who is a Nigerian living in Chicago, self-consciously
quotes J. M. Coetzee, the piercing interrogator of the human conscience:
‘Where is my heart in all of this?' (p.144). Vera's
unflinching confrontation with the Gukurahundi atrocities she never
personally witnessed, facilitated by her belief that ‘stories
do not belong to individuals; they belong to communities. They belong
to humanity' (p.90), lends Eze a poetic license as well as
‘mnemonic devices' to ‘re-remember' a painful
history. His answer is to place Zimbabwean history in a clearly
trans-national context, linking it (through characters such as Biko
and Equiano) with South Africa's apartheid, the Nigerian-Biafran
War, and even the Jewish Holocaust. Emphasising that ‘the
injustice done to one person is done to all' (p.90), Eze embraces
the cosmopolitan idea of universal responsibility (as opposed to
national unity) that has been increasingly on the fore-front of
progressive political thought. The Africa he imagines creates its
idea of progress by borrowing selectively from all the world's
cultures, rather than remaining closed in its own "tradition"
- as the character of Mugabe would have it, when he cries,
in one of the novel's lighter moments, that "YouTube
[is]the instrument of white magic propaganda" (p.31). On the
contrary, internet is hailed here as a weapon of democracy in a
country where media cannot operate freely.
The Trial of Robert Mugabe
falls short of both Vera's lyricism and Marechera's
subversive wit, falling rather too easily to sentimentality that
dampens the narrative's poignancy. It is also hard to imagine
Marechera, this gad-fly of Zimbabwean nationalism, who heckled Mugabe
on the eve of Independence in 1979, to address the disgraced dictator
‘Sir' and ‘Your Excellency'.
Nevertheless, the service
of The Trial of Robert Mugabe to Zimbabwe's collective healing
should not be undervalued. The scenario of the novel is as urgent
as it is sceptical. Zimbabwe's new unity government has just
unveiled an ‘Organ for National Healing, Reconciliation and
Integration' (ONHRI); at the same time, some victims have
expressed concern they will never see justice or compensation. Perpetrators
of state-sponsored violence continue to be at large, and victims
have seen no compensation.
Prime Minister Morgan
Tsvangirai, who has himself been severely beaten by members of President
Robert Mugabe's security forces, has stressed that he was
‘not just saying - forgive, heal and reconcile'.
But he said ‘justice needs forgiveness . . . and if we do
retributive justice, the danger is that we may slide back'
towards violence. Since Mugabe agreed to a power-sharing agreement
in September last year, it is unlikely to see him tried in The Hague
alongside the likes of Radovan Karadzic and Charles Taylor. Chielo
Zona Eze's The Trial of Robert Mugabe might thus be the only
trial Mugabe is ever called on to stand.
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