Zimbabwe's unfolding drama

Wilf Mbanga
7 April 2008

Wilf Mbanga is founder, editor and publisher of The Zimbabwean, an independent newspaper based in England and circulated widely in southern Africa

Also by Wilf Mbanga in openDemocracy:

"The African Union: what's in a name?" (27 January 2006)

"Happy Birthday, Robert Mugabe" (21 February 2007) openDemocracy has published many articles in collaboration with The Zimbabwean; for a list click here

It has been a momentous week in Zimbabwe's longstanding and agonising drama. Only nine days ago, Zimbabwe's beleaguered people were preparing to vote in the country's presidential and parliamentary elections on 29 March 2008 - and in so doing face down the might of a Zanu (PF) regime prepared (as in the house of assembly elections of March 2005) to use every available trick to manipulate the process and the result in order to preserve it and its leader Robert Mugabe in power.

There was much to suggest that this time, the precedent of a fraudulent election would be repeated. After all, the evidence of the 84-year-old tyrant's iron fist was everywhere - a figure portrayed on ubiquitous election posters and present by association in the tanks, water-cannons, rocket-launchers and armoured personnel-carriers menacing city streets. In the traditional Mugabe stronghold of the countryside, too, the regime's commitment to extend its hegemony was manifest in rampaging gangs of "green bombers" - the unemployed, ill-educated, indoctrinated youths who, since 2001, have terrorised the rural population with vicious beatings and rape.

Nine days on, Robert Mugabe is still there, Zanu (PF) rule has not ended - and the official results of the presidential election have still not been declared. But the political landscape looks very different, thanks to the bravery and commitment of Zimbabwean voters. For the weight of their choices eventually forced an admission that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had won a majority of parliamentary seats, and forced the regime to announce a second round in the presidential election - a tacit admission that the "old man" had failed to receive the popular backing he needed for an unwarranted claim of victory to be persuasive.

The people's hopes for change thus led them to vote in such numbers that even Mugabe's minions were unable to rig the poll in the way they had done before. The weapon of democracy - of one-person-one vote - that had been won for Zimbabwe in the wake of the liberation struggle in 1980 was put in the service of Zimbabweans against the masters who had so disappointed them.

The quarter of Zimbabweans who had fled the country as economic migrants and political refugees shared in the collective moment, as they followed the event via the internet, TV, radio or mobile phones from around the world. The diaspora - forbidden to vote, but equally desperate for change and good news also had a huge economic as well as personal and emotional stake in what was happening at home. It was their remittances that have enabled the Mugabe regime to stay afloat, even in the face of an almost complete collapse of the country's once-vibrant agriculture, mining and manufacturing industries, and an unprecedented inflation-rate of 100,000% that makes even daily transactions calculable only in millions of (Zimbabwe) dollars.

Indeed, without the ability of Zimbabweans abroad to sustain a familial and personal support of their compatriots at home - bypassing a corrupt and discredited state in the process - the everyday condition of people at home would be even more degraded. The country's economic meltdown has inflicted devastating consequences on Zimbabweans' health and capacity to function as normal citizens. The bare statistics - unemployment at 80%, the price of a loaf of bread at 50 million Zimbabwe dollars ($1), around 45% suffering from malnutrition (with 30% of children in rural areas suffering long-term malnutrition), and a life-expectancy of 34 for men and 37 for women - can only indicate the depth of the crisis consuming the country.

A shift of mood

This background of deep economic and social trauma and cautious political hope explains why the days since the election have seen Zimbabweans experience such a kaleidoscope of emotions. The delay in announcing the results was first greeted as confirmation that Zanu (PF) had suffered - and knew that it had suffered - a decisive loss. But as the days wore on and the organs of the regime were clearly calculating how best to adapt to the situation without acknowledging their defeat, the sense of optimism has begun to give way to foreboding.

The partisan Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) contributed to the shift of mood by delaying the announcement of the results of the house of assembly election, and then releasing them at a glacial pace. It took until the evening of 2 April - four days after the vote - for the final batch of carefully orchestrated parliamentary results to be declared. The ZEC promised presidential and senate results by the following evening, but at the last minute postponed the announcement, citing "logistical problems".

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe:

Bev Clark, "Mass evictions in Zimbabwe" (13 June 2005)

Netsai Mushonga, "Two nights in Harare's police cells" (5 December 2005)

Andrew Meldrum, "Zimbabwe between past and future" (23 June 2006)

Conor O'Loughlin, "Zimbabwean travails" (13 September 2006)

Stephen Chan, "Farewell, Robert Mugabe" (20 March 2007)

Michael Holman, "Dizzy worms in Zimbabwe" (13 September 2007)

The Zimbabwean, "Zimbabwe votes - and waits" (31 March 2008) In any event, many of the results had been displayed outside the individual polling booths since midday on 30 March. The opposition MDC (led by Morgan Tsvangirai) was finally confirmed by the ZEC as having won a majority in the house of assembly of ninety-nine seats - with Zanu (PF) on ninety-seven, Arthur Mutambara's breakaway faction of the MDC on ten, and one independent. The MDC also made its own tally and released the figures. At that statge, many Zimbabweans tentatively began to rejoice. But heavy-handed police soon put a stop to public displays of celebration.

By 2 April, Zimbabweans - a peace-loving and tolerant people in the worst as well as the best of circumstances - were growing restive at the lack of official confirmation of what everybody already knew: the MDC had won. The international community demanded that the ZEC release the results. Even the "friendly" observers from the southern African community, the African Union, Iran, Russia and China - handpicked by the Mugabe regime - began to express reservations about "irregularities" and delays in the vote-counting process.

Until this point, Robert Mugabe himself and his senior officials had been quiet. It was evident that they had been stunned by the extent of the anti-government vote. In the void, wild rumours had begun to circulate - that Mugabe had fled to Malaysia, that the service chiefs were going to stage a coup. Both were dust in the people's eyes - for suddenly the leadership came out with guns blazing, by accusing the MDC of "attempting a coup" in prematurely announcing the results.

A key image in the shift in the people's mood arrived on 3 April, when Mugabe appeared on state television bidding farewell to the African Union delegation - looking fit and cheerful. The much-reviled minister for state security, Didymus Mutasa, announced a politburo meeting for 4 April. Mugabe's spokesman, George Charamba, warned the MDC of "consequences" for its having released unofficial election results. The deputy information minister, Bright Matonga, started talking of a rerun of the presidential election (within twenty-one days, as the law demands) - even though the results of the actual vote had not even been announced yet!

At this point, other rumours abounded. - that police had been instructed to collect their weapons from armouries countrywide, that "war veterans" had been called on to gather and report for duty. This time, there was more substance to the whispers - for it was becoming clear that a regime fightback was underway. The politburo meeting was indeed significant in this respect; it was indeed decided there to call for a second round of voting in the presidential contest, and to mobilise the state's security forces (official and unofficial) to help ensure that Robert Mugabe and Zanu (PF) got the "right" result this time.

A time of trial

These political tactics were, to veteran Zimbabwe analysts and Robert Mugabe-watchers, as familiar as they were chilling. The similarities with 2000, shortly after Mugabe lost a referendum on constitutional amendments that he himself had proposed, are uncanny. Then, immediately after the results had been announced, he had appeared on state television looking subdued and reconciliatory. Soon after, gangs of war veterans and ruling party thugs were invading commercial farms, killing and beating white farmers and their workers, torching staff accommodation and slaughtering farm animals. The lesson, in 2008 as in 2000, is that a politically wounded Mugabe can be as or even more dangerous than a complacently triumphal one.

The cycle of events in the days since the election thus fits the pattern of Zimbabwe's recent political history. The ungrateful voters have backed their president into a corner, and his response is to fight even more viciously. His two-pronged strategy is to deploy the fused party-state institutions and the threat and/or reality of force to ensure that his re-election can be made official. His vicious militia, together with the police and army - who have been reduced to little more than an armed wing of Zanu (PF) - will attempt to terrorise the population into voting for him; and his minions in the ZEC can be relied on to fix the ballot if and when the tally again needs to be corrected in his favour.

Will it work? It has worked before. But this time, it could backfire. Zimbabweans are heroically patient, but they have also had a glimpse of hope and freedom - two of the most potent forces on the planet. They know that their first-round vote made the regime wobble; they know that this chance will, for many of them, be their last; they know that a clear majority of them wishes to see the end of a regime that has inflicted such misery. If they do indeed repeat their first-round decision and vote massively for Morgan Tsvangirai, they may find too that many of the police and army rank-and-file will join them at last. After all, the regime's footsoldiers also have to queue for hours to buy the basic provisions of life, and to rely on begging or bribery to feed their families.

The best outcome then would be for Robert Mugabe to retire with as much as grace as he has left, and accept the offer of a protected retirement - at home or in exile. But the "old man's" intransigent character - and political persona that so identifies his wishes with the interests of Zimbabwe that he is blinded to the damage he has wrought - may impel him to defy the people's wishes fight to the end. This would indeed be a tragic outcome that would make Zimbabwe's much-needed internal reconciliation even more difficult. In that event, the polarised attitudes and lack of forgiveness that would ensue could consign Mugabe to a far less comfortable fate: being handed over to the international court in The Hague, to answer for crimes against humanity.

The Zimbabwean people have spoken - and Robert Mugabe has refused to listen. Now, under circumstances of extreme and dangerous pressure, they are being asked to raise their voice again. It is an occasion for the world to stand with Zimbabweans in what is for them both a moment of democracy and a time of trial.


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