The Trial of Robert Mugabe: A Novel
Chielo Zona Eze
Okri Books, 2009
In The Trial of Robert Mugabe, Nigerian writer and philosopher Chielo Zona Eze gives victims of the Mugabe regime what they never had in real life: a chance to confront the Zimbabwean dictator with stories of their suffering and death. Mugabe’s trial takes place in God’s court, where a series of speakers bear witness to the atrocities that were carried out during the Gukurahundi, a period of postcolonial “cleansing,” which led to the slaughter of some 20,000 civilians. Mugabe listens reluctantly as each witness tells his or her story; the stories accumulate to make up a collective narrative of coercion, intimidation, violence, and injustice. The stories have evidentiary status. At the end of the trial, Steve Biko, the murdered anti-Apartheid activist, tells Mugabe: “. . . there is ample evidence to condemn you. Each of the stories we have heard here is enough to send you to eternal hell fire . . .” (148).
Like the story of Zimbabwe itself, Eze’s work is not as simple as it appears. Less a novel in the conventional sense than a meditation on novelistic form, The Trial thinks aloud about the type of literary production that makes sense in response to the life and political career of Robert “Gabriel” Mugabe. Mugabe was, in the minds of many black Africans, the angel who delivered them from white-minority rule. But, as one of the story-tellers, Erica Maidai, asks: “What is independence without human freedom? What is independence without decency of life?” Her story, like each witness’s testimony, weaves private, personal reflection with public, national history. Echoing the words of Mahatma Gandhi, she explains that she withdrew her support for Mugabe and joined the Movement for Democratic Change because she “wanted to become the change [she] desired.” Maidai ventriloquizes the language of another, tethering herself and her nation to the Indian story of nonviolent resistance. Her personal story is the story of Zimbabwe, but it also speaks to a broader world narrative, indeed a broader world community.
The novel concerns itself with the notion of story-telling, even as it tries to render “the people’s stories as honestly as they happened.” This is how Yvonne Vera – the novelist within Eze’s novel – describes her responsibility as the official chronicler of the trial. Eze taps into the tradition of African and European story-telling in order to deal with the problem of how best to articulate the inarticulable. Allusions to Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, J.M. Coetzee’s The Age of Iron, George Orwell’s essay about colonial rule in Burma, “Shooting an Elephant,” as well as Vera’s own novel about Zimbabwe, The Stone Virgins, create a polyphonic zone of stories and story-tellers. In this way, The Trial of Robert Mugabe literally reaches outward. While it tells a specifically Zimbabwean story, it foregrounds connections to other histories and historical locations by positioning itself in a matrix of related texts and contexts.
Each story describes the plight of individuals. Yet the novel privileges the collective over any single story or storyteller. For Eze, this narrative principle mirrors a truism about nations and nationalism: “A country,” as Erica Maidai puts it, “is always more than any individual.” Just as the country of Zimbabwe comprises many identities, so too must its story be comprised of many different stories. While they may serve as vessels for personal articulations, “stories do not belong to individuals; they belong to communities. They belong to humanity.” The democratic form of The Trial contrasts sharply with the undemocratic, monological character of Mugabe’s rule. When the dictator identified himself with the nation as a whole, he denied the fundamentally polyglot character of such a political community. The trial thus serves as a place of collective recuperation. Instead of demanding Mugabe’s just punishment, speakers ask that they, their stories, and the nation of Zimbabwe be re-valued for their teeming multiplicity.
The Trial of Robert Mugabe is a courageous, highly conceived work that demands its reader to listen to the stories of the victims of history. The punch-line, of course, is that the Mugabe regime continues to collect its victims, even as it couches its policies in the language of decolonisation. The novel serves as a warning to coloniser and colonised subject alike. Using the example of Zimbabwe as a test case, Eze invites us to imagine alternatives to the model of national identity that Mugabe enforces to this day.