When a Dictator Falls

10/22/2015 06:08 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2016
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 15: Zimbabwe's President and Head of the African Union Robert Mugabe seen during a press co
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 15: Zimbabwe's President and Head of the African Union Robert Mugabe seen during a press conference after the closing ceremony of the 25th African Union Summit being held at the Sandton Convention Centre in Sandton, Johannesburg on 15 June 2015. (Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

How the crucial minutes after an election in Zimbabwe inspired an international thriller.

From inside the thick walls of the State Department headquarters on the western edge of Washington DC, I watched a country I love come within a whisker of democracy. The southern African nation of Zimbabwe was on the brink of finally getting rid its longtime dictator.

On March 29, 2008, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe lost his election bid for a sixth term. After twenty-eight years in power and the utter destruction of a once-promising economy, Mugabe was emphatically rejected by voters. The shell-shocked leader gathered his senior political and security teams to share his plans to concede defeat in a national television address. With his bags packed and the limousines warming up in the driveway, it looked like Mugabe was ready for a speedy departure to the airport. While the world watched and waited, the pieces were all falling into place for a remarkable democratic transition in Zimbabwe.

It was not to be. As detailed by the Washington Post, Mugabe's military chiefs refused to allow the president to quit. They insisted that he run in the second round, while they would unleash a vicious campaign of violence to ensure victory.

That's exactly what happened: the official election results were kept secret for weeks while army units directed marauding militias to systematically spread fear and crush any resistance to Mugabe. Hundreds of people were tortured, thousands of homes were burnt to the ground, and more than 80 civilians killed. It was a painful dismantling of the opposition. Mugabe's challenger pulled out of the contest and fled to the Dutch embassy for safety. Mugabe then "won" eighty-five percent of the vote.

The window for Zimbabwe's democratic revolution was slammed shut. What-could-have-been burns especially hot for me since the events of 2008 are personal. At the time, I was serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. Zimbabwe was a country I had watched closely ever since my first visit there as an exchange student decades earlier. I had many Zimbabwean friends who were fed up and desperate for change. Like the millions of Zimbabweans who fled to South Africa, Europe, and the United States, they were hopeful for political change so they could return home.

Back in Washington DC, my State Department colleagues and I watched in horror as the country slipped from an historic moment of joy to one of its darkest hours. Waiting for the official announcement that Mugabe had conceded, instead we started receiving reports of villages under attack. All of us who were involved in one way or another with the U.S. response at the time still wonder what else we could have done.

Military action was never on the table. But the U.S. had placed Mugabe and his most sinister allies under sanctions and had helped to block an arms shipment from China at the height of the political crisis. We had supported human rights activists and vote trackers in the country, while our embassy in the capital was actively working the diplomatic circuit to rally support for a free and fair poll count.

In those wild days when the election outcome was still unknown, we worked late, hungry for more information about what was happening on the ground and behind closed doors, frustrated at our inability to force events. I remember cloistering in windowless rooms, rowdily debating whether the tide in Zimbabwe was decisively shifting or if we had to try to do more. We now know that our efforts fell short.

Seven years later, Mugabe is still in power today. After yet another fraudulent election, his cabal remains firmly in place. The opposition is a shell and any hope for democratic change will now have to wait at least until the death of the 91-year old leader.

But what might have happened if the world had reacted differently in those crucial hours of March 29-30? In that brief window--when no one knew who won the election, what Mugabe would do, or what was coming next--could a powerful outside force have altered the balance? Could some decisive move by the United States have changed Zimbabwe's history?

These are the questions I try to answer in Minute Zero, an international thriller about an American diplomat fighting against rapacious politicians and Washington indifference to try to prevent an aging dictator from stealing an election. Historical speculation is fodder for fiction authors, of course.

"Minute Zero" is a fleeting moment of extreme uncertainty after a natural disaster, the death of a leader, or, perhaps, the hours when a murky election is still up for grabs. It's exactly when outside leverage can be most effective and thus the time for the United States to act. I created the idea, and gave it to my novel's hero, precisely after watching from the inside as our government kept missing opportunities to shape world events. Just like the wee hours after the 2008 election in Zimbabwe.

Todd Moss is the Chief Operating Officer & Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development and the author of the Judd Ryker thriller series from Penguin's Putnam Books. Minute Zero was released September 15th.