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A review of Chielo Zona Eze's new novel Pucherova reviews Chielo Zona Eze’s novel, The Trial of Robert Mugabe, published by Okri Books on 15 September, in which Steve Biko and writers Yvonne Vera and Dambudzo Marechera are among the members of a divine jury helping God decide Zimbabwean President Mugabe’s fate on the day of judgement. Although the book falls ‘rather too easily to sentimentality’, its service to Zimbabwe’s ‘collective healing should not be undervalued’, says Pucherova. It may, after all, ‘be the only trial Mugabe is ever called on to stand.’

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 that:

‘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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