President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe in the 22nd African Heads of State Conference on February 21, 2003 in Paris, France.
Credit: Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

His excellency enters the room like a pasha. He is not a pasha. He is not even a king.

Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, chairman of the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), head of state, head of government, commander in chief of the military, is the last African Big Man. With 23 years in power under his belt, he is behind only Castro and Qaddafi as the longest-sitting dictator in the world.

He rises at 4:00 every morning. Then he works out. Free weights, jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups, running in place. He's kept the same routine for more than 40 years. It keeps the body strong and, he believes, prevents the mind from fraying. He is 79 years old, but will not give in to thoughts of mortality. To do so would suggest weakness. To be weak suggests vulnerability. To be vulnerable suggests one's power is not absolute.

The meeting with the president took place at 3:30 on a hot afternoon in Harare at the gracefully fading colonial mansion that serves as his official residence. The mood was classic Big Man. Here were women in African dresses, protocol officers with cellphones and leather agendas, security agents pretending to disappear. Impeccable in a hand-tailored gray English suit offset by a red pocket-square and matching silk tie, Mugabe, a small, brittle man with a full head of black hair and taut, ebony skin, was enthroned on a white-leather armchair under a gilt-framed portrait of himself.

"Welcome," the president said, offering his hand. His fingers held mine in a limp clutch. Mugabe smiled. It was the joyless expression of a man who found the moment excruciating. "Please sit down," he said. A waiter in white livery poured tea. Mugabe took a sip, with a slight extension of his pinkie. He crossed his legs awkwardly, then uncrossed them, then crossed them again. A single river of sweat trickled from his forehead to the lines along his mouth to his chin.

Looking at this effete, uncomfortable little man, it was hard to believe he was one of the world's most ruthless despots, "a caricature of an African tyrant," in the words of South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Mugabe's picture hangs on the walls of every public building in Zimbabwe. There is at least one Robert Mugabe Avenue in every city and town. When he travels in his custom, armored $900,000 black Mercedes-Benz, with punctureproof tires, it is with sirens blaring in a 24-car motorcade of armored 4x4s, motorcycles, and military vehicles, which Zimbabweans have dubbed "Bob and the Wailers." Mugabe also has his own choir, a small coterie of women who attend his arrivals and departures, trilling and dancing, in dresses made of fabric emblazoned with his face.

In the years since Mugabe took control in Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, he's been one of the world's least-known dictators. He rode to power as a hero of the African nationalist movement, which also spawned Nelson Mandela. Toppling Rhodesia's white-minority government in 1980, he ruled Zimbabwe for 20 years around a principle of racial reconciliation and national unity. Then, in 2000, Mugabe did an abrupt about-face, denouncing whites, whom he'd once embraced, and seizing their farms in a radical land-reform program meant to undo Zimbabwe's history of inequitable land distribution.

Instead, the policy has led to the undoing of Zimbabwe itself. Commercial agriculture tanked as profitable white commercial farmers were replaced by blacks who had little, if any, farming experience. Farms went fallow, producing shortages and reducing agricultural exports to almost zero. By the presidential elections of March 2002, three quarters of the population lived in poverty, and almost 60 percent were said to support Mugabe's opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Nevertheless, Mugabe won, in an election denounced around the world as a sham.

In retaliation for the negative press he's received since then, Mugabe has banned the foreign press. To come to Zimbabwe as a Western journalist requires an "invitation" from the Zimbabwe Ministry of Information, which has refused nearly all such visa requests for more than a year.

I wasn't invited, either. I slipped in last October (in 2002) with a delegation of African-American political activists who had been invited to make a "fact-finding" tour, paid for by the Zimbabwean government. The group included two former Black Panthers, two Brooklyn ministers, and the son of civil-rights hero Adam Clayton Powell. Their leader, New York City councilman Charles Barron, saw Mugabe as a "brother in the struggle" for black liberation and believed the "so-called facts" about Zimbabwe were racially slanted, if not wrong.

The facts about Zimbabwe are straightforward: Once the breadbasket of southern Africa, the country of 12 million is now a beggar state. Famine looms over half the population. Five hundred thousand people have been internally displaced. Seventy percent of the population is unemployed and 28 percent is HIV-positive – among the highest rates in the world. There are shortages of every commodity. In addition, freedom of speech has been trampled, political opposition has been repressed, the press has been muzzled, and food, in many parts of the country, has become a weapon.