15 February 2007

The case of Robert Mugabe: Does revolution breed psychopaths?

As Zimbabwe slides further into chaos, questions about its president, Robert Mugabe, become more intense. Has power corrupted him? Is he slipping into senility? Or, the question I find most intriguing, are we simply observing the behaviour of a psychopath? And, if so, is this a common affliction of revolutionary leaders?

Mugabe exhibited psychopathic behaviour early in his career as head of state. Following the successful insurgency against the white government of Ian Smith, Mugabe was elected prime minister in 1980. In 1983, he fired his revolutionary partner Joshua Nkomo from cabinet and unleashed the murderous North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on Nkomo's Ndebele supporters. Thousands of civilians were killed or disappeared. Once the resistance was crushed, Mugabe established a one-party state. In 1987, he abolished the position of prime minister and assumed the office of president with new powers. In recent years, he has become increasingly erratic, brutally suppressing opposition and adopting social and economic policies that have driven millions of people into exile, millions into dire poverty, destroyed the middle class and wrecked the economy.

The environment of revolution, the environment that nourished Mugabe, is violent and often chaotic, highly amenable to psychopathy. When ruthlessness is an asset, the most ruthless might be expected to rise to the top. And the last century has seen a multitude of examples: Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet, and a host of African leaders.

Of course there have been many leaders equally psychopathic who have risen to power by other means, from Caligula to Leopold II of Belgium, but revolution seems to produce more than its fair share. It would be an intriguing exercise, a good topic for a Master's or Ph.D. thesis perhaps, to do an extensive survey of revolutionary leaders and analyze them for psychopathy. I suspect the results might not make pleasant reading.

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