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.

"We believe what we are doing is right, and our processes have not been unfair," the president said royally. He took no questions. Instead, he held forth for an hour: about the economy, which he vowed was turning around; about his land-reform policies, which he described as "just and unstoppable"; and about the West, particularly Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial master, which Mugabe has called "the serpent." He vowed that his reelection was free, fair, and a representation of the "people's will," and wished for the world to stay out of his affairs. With that, Mugabe stood up and swept from the room.

Whites arrived in what is now Zimbabwe in 1890, chartered by the British colonial land pirate Cecil Rhodes. In search of gold, they found a lush, green haven of rich farmland and rolling hills, and by 1897 had conquered the native Shona and Ndebele people. Thus began the British colony of Rhodesia: a century-long land grab in which a handful of whites controlled much of the valuable land in the country while systematically oppressing millions of blacks.

This ultimately led to war: a brutal seven-year struggle that began in 1973 and ended with the Rhodesians conceding defeat in 1980. African self-rule was established, and Robert Mugabe, who'd led the revolutionary forces, became prime minister. But rather than kicking out the whites, as other postcolonial heads of state had done, Mugabe embraced the settlers he had once described as "vermin," giving them 20 seats in parliament and honoring their title to the farmland they'd inhabited for decades.

It was, many believe today, nothing more than a shrewd move to shore up financial support in the West while making sure Zimbabwe's economy continued to flourish. And it worked. Foreign investment poured in, and whites, encouraged by Mugabe's call to help build a "new prosperity," dedicated themselves to the cause. But the fact remained that they still owned most of the land and controlled most of the country's major industries.

"Clearly, imbalances needed to be corrected," explained Minister of Justice, Legal, and Parliamentary Affairs Patrick Chinamasa one morning over tea at his ministry. Quite simply, letting the whites keep their land had been a mistake, he explained. Now it was time to rectify the problem. Hence "fast track" land reform, the ideologically driven policy of seizing white-owned farmland, which was understood as the righteous undoing of colonial wrongs and, in addition, richly deserved by the whites, who had always been selfish and racist.

"This is a people's revolution," explained Joseph Made, minister of Land, Agriculture, and Rural Resettlement. So far, 5,160 farms have been seized. "Nothing will stop the land-reform program," he said. "It's an idea whose time has come."

Of course, Made had a farm. So did Chinamasa. According to the Zimbabwean non-governmental organization Justice for Agriculture, most of Mugabe's ministers, and some of their relatives, have been given farms or were allowed to purchase them at ridiculously low prices. To meet the "new black farmer," the delegation I'd come with was invited to lunch at a 3,150-acre estate now occupied by Lieutenant General Constantin Chiwenga, commander of the Zimbabwean Army, and his wife, Jocelyn. The farm was still owned on paper by a Roger Staunton, who has left Zimbabwe. In April 2002, the Chiwengas arrived and took over the farm, with the help of men armed with AK-47s.

It was a beautiful place: fully irrigated, and tended by hundreds of farmworkers in coveralls. They were growing roses in greenhouses. The general, dressed in a Stetson and jodhpurs, met us at the gate, joined by Jocelyn, a large, attractive woman wearing an African dress with huge, puffed sleeves.

As we sat on the porch sipping mimosas, Jocelyn explained that she was a "city girl" and knew nothing about farming. "But you see, this is part of the people's struggle, and so we must go to the land," she added. She looked out at her acres of flowers. "I find I'm liking it very much."

The Chiwengas' place had the proper effect. Councilman Barron, who'd spent the afternoon observing the farmworkers, beamed. "These people are just doing it – living large, you know? It's liberating," he said. "Blacks should be so lucky in the United States."

And so it went for the rest of our tour. The delegation was wined and dined, taken to Victoria Falls, shown a few farms, and given private meetings with top ministers. In the end, they concluded that Zimbabwe was a safe, beautiful country: Its national parks were an amazement, its land-reform policies were just, and it remained "one of the most stable countries in Africa." With that declaration, Barron and his colleagues left for New York.

I stayed.

"You don't realize the structural damage in this place, because it looks pretty damn good," said a senior U.S. diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity over coffee at the Harare Sheraton one afternoon. Stately jacaranda trees lined well-tended boulevards named for Julius Nyerere, Mandela, and other African leaders. On quiet side streets, elegant mansions sprawled on verdant lawns. But the Zimbabwean dollar was worthless, he added. Inflation hovered near 500 percent. There were gas lines, milk lines, sugar lines, and cooking-oil lines. There were lines for ground maize, or mealie-meal, the Zimbabwean staple. For bread, Zimbabweans lined up at dawn.

Increasingly, the citizens of Harare were growing frustrated. Earlier that day, I'd watched as thousands of people gathered in front of the headquarters of Mugabe's party, Zanu-PF, where they'd been tear-gassed and beaten with clubs by police until they ran away. The event was a memorial to Learnmore Jongwe, the 28-year-old spokesman of the opposition MDC, who had been arrested for the murder of his wife. Jongwe had died mysteriously in prison on October 21, 2002. What had begun as a memorial in central Harare had become a protest march leading directly to the doorstep of the ruling party.

"What we have is a total breakdown of law and order," explained a white middle-class woman who lived with her husband in the upscale suburb of Chisipiti. Like 60 percent of Harare, the couple had supported the MDC, as had most of their neighbors. But when it came time to vote, the husband's name had been dropped from the voters' rolls. This was fairly common, she explained. Her son's name had been dropped, too. A white neighbor who'd lived in Zimbabwe since 1937 had also been dropped. Many of her middle-class black friends had been, too. It was all in the spirit of cutting down the vote for the MDC. And in fact, it was easily done: In a city of 1.2 million, tens of thousands were not allowed to vote.

There was a protocol for survival, the woman said. For example, while she and her husband still supported the MDC, they were members of Zanu-PF. "You need the Zanu-PF party card for traveling," she explained. She showed me hers: It said peace, unity, development with a picture of Mugabe. "They have roadblocks, you see. So you learn the protocol, you get to a roadblock and you flash your Zanu-PF card; make the Zanu-PF fist" – she showed me how: thumb over fingers, arm raised high – "and they let you through. I tried to get all my workers a card so they could go visit their families. Everyone wants a Zanu-PF card, and I can't get any more – I asked my source about it."

"You have a source?"

Oh, everyone had to have a source, she said. Otherwise there wouldn't be anything. Eggs and sugar seemed taken care of for now, though she was currently in search of a good milk contact. "I think I found one – a friend of a friend is bringing the stuff in from South Africa. So now I'm getting five liters a week."

But things, she said, were getting worse: "I hit a man in the supermarket for a loaf of bread the other day. Elbowed him. For a loaf of bread." She grew quiet for a few moments. "I've become an animal," she said at last.

There are 11,950,000 blacks in zimbabwe, and 50,000 whites. in 1980, the white community numbered closer to 200,000, many of whom were committed to building a multiracial democracy and chose to stay.

"I thought, Here's a guy who's got it right," recalls Edwina Spicer, a British-born documentary-film maker who, inspired by Mugabe's promise of "unity," came to Zimbabwe just after independence. "This is a man who we really believed would do good for the country... but we didn't know then."

Over time, Spicer and many Zimbabweans, black and white, learned the truth: that what is happening in Zimbabwe today is the endgame in Mugabe's 23-year drive – much of which has gone on in the shadows – toward total destruction of all political opponents. It began with what was called gukuruhundi. In English, it means "the rain that washes away the chaff." The chaff were the Ndebele tribe of Matabeleland, the provincial home of Mugabe's chief political rival of the 1980s, Dr. Joshua Nkomo.

Although Mugabe's party was in power, Nkomo's party was a strong force. It had 20 seats in parliament, and hundreds of thousands of supporters. In 1982, Mugabe, hoping to silence the voices of Nkomo's Ndebele backers, declared Nkomo a "cobra" and ordered a special, North Korean–trained unit of the Zimbabwean Army, the Fifth Brigade, to "destroy its head."

That spring, the Fifth Brigade descended on Matabeleland. Villages were burned to the ground. Zimbabwean soldiers, all majority Shona, raped Ndebele women to create "Shona babies." These rapes took place during all-night political-indoctrination sessions in which villagers were made to sing, dance, recite Marxist doctrine, and otherwise show allegiance to Mugabe. Those who failed were executed or disappeared.

Human-rights groups estimate that half of the population of Matabeleland was tortured. It's believed that up to 20,000 people were massacred in the five-year campaign. The gukuruhundi finally ended in 1987, when Nkomo agreed to sign a "unity pact" with the Mugabe government. This agreement limited Nkomo's political power, and ceded his parliamentary seats to Mugabe. The constitution was amended, ending Mugabe's reign as prime minister and establishing an "executive presidency" that gave him ultimate control of the executive, legislative, and military branches of government, with the power to declare martial law. The Fifth Brigade was disbanded, and the men dispersed throughout the Zimbabwean military.

Over time, word of the Matabeleland massacre got out (as well as reports of other irregularities: the mysterious deaths of political opponents, and increasingly violent election campaigns), but, says Spicer, many Zimbabweans refused to accept Mugabe's culpability. "We allowed ourselves to believe that he didn't know," she says. "But now I am convinced he did know and it came from him."

For most of the 1990s, the whites, and the West, let Mugabe slide. Zimbabwe was a country of farms, not of diamond mines, which are the source of half of Africa's nastiest wars. Robert Mugabe was not Mobutu Sese Seko, nor was he Idi Amin, nor any other ostentatious Big Man whose excesses drew undue attention.

"He was clever," says Spicer. "I used to get sentimental about my idealism of the 1980s, and it turns out the guy's a monster."

By 1998, Zimbabwe was a nation deep in crisis. Mugabe's economic policies were chaotic, his government was wracked with corruption scandals, and his refusal to come clean about the slaughter in Matabeleland was a political embarrassment, particularly when he was confronted with evidence of mass graves. Even though he'd promised black Zimbabweans a return of their "lost lands," Mugabe had shown little interest in land reform, and almost 20 years after the dismantling of colonialism, 70 percent of the nation's prime farm and grazing land still lay in white hands.

The change in the status quo was triggered by the decision by the men who'd fought for Zimbabwean independence (and many disenfranchised young men who hadn't) to seize the land Mugabe had long promised them. In 2000, the so-called veterans began moving onto the land and seizing farms. Startled, Mugabe proposed a referendum authorizing the nationalization of roughly half of the country's white-owned farmland and permitting an amendment of the constitution that would have expanded his already kinglike powers exponentially. The Zimbabwean people responded to this idea with a resounding no. Six months later, with heavy financial backing from the whites –politicized by the prospect of angry war vets invading their land – the newly formed MDC won 57 seats in parliament.

Stung, Mugabe retaliated, denouncing the whites as "enemies of Zimbabweans" and unleashing the vets on thousands of white farmers, who were driven from their land, often violently, while the Zimbabwean police looked on.

"Here's what they did to him," said Kerry Kay, sitting in her suburban home in Marondera, ten miles away from the farm she and her husband, Iain, had owned. She handed me a photo album containing pictures of Iain. I looked at them, then at Iain, a blond, wiry man in his late 40s. He'd healed remarkably. He'd been beaten with clubs and whipped with wire. His back was a maze of lacerations, and his face had been so pummeled that his cheeks had swollen to the size of small eggplants. In one photo, he was almost unrecognizable: just a lump of black-and-blue flesh.

The Kays had been among the first white farmers to openly support the MDC. For this, they paid the price. At its essence, fast-track land reform was a dual campaign of land redistribution and terror. What happened to the Kays was a bit more extreme than what had happened to their neighbors between June of 2000 and March of 2002, the span of time between the parliamentary and presidential elections. Most farmers were simply driven out once, but the Kays were driven out three times. The incidents were more or less the same: truckloads of men, claiming to be war veterans and wielding clubs and occasionally AK-47s, would arrive, proclaim the farm theirs, and set up camp on the land, staying for days. The Kays' farm had finally been taken over for good after Mugabe's election. "It was destroyed," said Kerry. "And no insurance. When it's anarchy, they don't pay."

In the wake of the farm seizures, the international media descended on Zimbabwe, startled by reports, and then photos, of whites under siege in Africa. But it was the hundreds of thousands of displaced black farmworkers and black MDC supporters who bore the brunt of Mugabe's campaign of terror: withholding of food, torture, rape, beatings, house burnings, disappearances, murders. These incidents received little or no attention.

In the end, Mugabe's strategy worked. He had won the election through open intimidation of voters. The reports from the countryside had included stories of people being driven away from the polls by club-wielding party loyalists and party youth who'd been formed into a national militia, nicknamed the Green Bombers. Overnight, Great Britain and most of the European Union joined the United States in slapping travel sanctions on Mugabe and other key members of his party, and the Western press denounced Mugabe as a desperate old man who'd stolen an election in a last-ditch attempt to hang on to power.

But the fact was, Mugabe was now the country's absolute leader. With the white opposition effectively destroyed, he could now focus his energy on any blacks who opposed him.

twenty percent of the zimbabwean population has been tortured, asserts the Amani Trust, a ten-year-old human-rights group set up specifically to work with the country's torture victims. On average, the organization receives 50 cases a week, though in regions where local elections are being held, the rate can top 20 cases a day.

For six days in October 2002, the people of Harare waited for word about Raymond Majongwe, the city's most famous dissident: a garrulous former youth-soccer coach and the head of the embattled Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe. In early October, Majongwe had led 80,000 teachers – 80 percent of the national teaching force – on strike, demanding better pay. For his actions, Majongwe had been arrested and charged with violating the Public Order and Security Act, which bans political discussions of two or more people, strikes, rallies, marches, or other quasi-political displays. He was held for 48 hours and released on bail. Five days later he was arrested again and disappeared. The police denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. He finally reappeared after six days.

Two weeks after his release, Majongwe met me in the garden of the Brontë Hotel in Harare. A massively built man, he walked with a slight limp and seemed nervous. He was leaving Zimbabwe that night, "by the mercy of God," he said. It was just temporarily, he added. He wouldn't say where he was going.

On the day that Majongwe had disappeared, he told me, he was taken to Harare's central police station, put in leg irons, and handed off to state security agents. They drove him to a rural police station 35 miles out of town, where he was blindfolded and then taken to an even more remote post. He thought it was a farm. "I could smell pig stench," he said. There, interrogators accused Majongwe of belonging to the MDC and of being sponsored by the American government. He denied it.

Majongwe was calm as he described his ordeal. "I was beaten, I was blindfolded, I was handcuffed – you see where the skin is peeling off? That's where the electrical cables were tied around." He showed me a set of fading scars on his wrists and his ankles. Electrodes had been tied to his genitals, his anus, the inside of his mouth, and his fingertips. "All the places the scars won't be so visible," he said. "One thing: I never broke. That much I can say. I never lost my nerve."

Majongwe looked at his battered arms. "These were more visible last week," he said about the scars. "You see, they only beat me for three hours. Then they threw me back in the cell to heal – they wanted the swellings on my mouth to disappear, which they rightly did. You can see. . . ." He moved closer to show me his mouth, then he looked up. He flinched. "So. And there is the state agent," he said quietly. "He has come." I turned around. A man in a red shirt sat behind a pillar, talking on a cellphone. I turned back. Majongwe was gone.

Since the passage of the Public Order and Security Act, in January of last year, a series of new laws now ban virtually all dissenting activity or statements that could be construed as "engendering hostility" toward Mugabe or the government. The most draconian of these is the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, passed one month after Mugabe's election in April 2002, which shut down journalistic scrutiny almost completely.

It is now illegal to criticize or otherwise "embarrass" the president or his party. Traveling to regions dubbed "sensitive" – generally MDC strongholds – is a risky business. As a rule, independent journalists are banned from most political events, and covering an election is almost completely out of the question. So is reporting in the region where an election is being held. Mugabe's network of spies and secret police have fanned out across the country, embedding themselves in local communities. Even if journalists were able to report freely, many people are simply too afraid to talk to them.

Thus, it was not surprising that the discovery of bodies last October underneath the 17th hole of a golf course in the Matabeleland city of Bulawayo went unreported. They were found clogging up the sewage system. Several were decapitated; all showed signs of torture. The discovery coincided with a fierce election campaign that had raged all fall in a nearby region called Insiza. It was a "by-election" to fill the seat of the local member of parliament, who had died. Insiza was an MDC stronghold. Zanu-PF won the election. Robert Mugabe came to Insiza to congratulate the winner. He dressed in a white baseball cap and a green-and-white shirt, the fabric printed with his image. "Unity, unity, and more unity!" he said, raising his fist in the Zanu-PF salute. "That's the way we have known one another. And that's how it should be forever."

On November 7, 2002, Learnmore Jongwe's death was ruled a suicide by Zimbabwean authorities. Since then, a number of MDC officials have been tortured, imprisoned, and threatened, along with other opposition supporters. Since April 2003, general strikes have swept through the country, the largest and most violent being a weeklong demonstration in early June. Tens of thousands stayed home from work to protest Zimbabwe's plummeting economy and Mugabe's continued refusal to resign. The strike, during which demonstrators were beaten and tear-gassed by police and paramilitaries sent in by the government, was led by MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who, by all accounts, rightfully won the March 2002 presidential election.

On June 6, 2003 Tsvangirai was arrested and charged with trying to incite his followers to overthrow the president by violence. Two weeks later, he was released on $12,000 bail. He is also facing trial for plotting to murder the president, a charge he refutes. He now faces treason charges on two counts. If convicted, Tsvangirai could face the death penalty.

The U.S., which has largely kept quiet on Zimbabwean affairs, has now publicly called for Mugabe's resignation. Writing in The New York Times in June, Secretary of State Colin Powell accused Mugabe of "violent misrule," saying that his time "has come and gone."

Today, as President Mugabe drives along the Robert Gabriel Mugabe Highway in the countryside, he sees acres of once lush farmland, now fallow. The road wends past vast squatter camps where people dig for roots to survive. Some defiantly wave the openhanded salute of the MDC. Mugabe has banned the salute, as well as any "suspicious movement or gesture" within sight or sound of the presidential motorcade.

He knows that he has outlasted all the Big Men of his generation: Mobutu Sese Seko, Kenneth Kaunda, Idi Amin, and, most recently, Daniel Arap Moi, the former president of Kenya, who lost in a landslide election last December after 24 years of autocratic rule. Moi, another 79-year-old with a taste for English suits, formally ceded power at Nairobi's Uhuru Park. Upon sighting his limousine, Kenyans threw mud balls and jeered and later rejoiced while Moi sat stoically on the podium.

Now, as Mugabe grows increasingly isolated within the walls of his empire, rumors of his own demise – as well as insanity and ill-health – swirl around him. Haunted by the specter of his enemies, enslaved by his vanity, he is reviled and yet iconic, until suddenly he is gone – like every Big Man in history.

Janet Reitman is a writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, and Los Angeles Times Magazine. This is her first article for Men's Journal.