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Crisis Mounts for Cornered Mugabe

As the president orders a violent crackdown on the opposition, some say support for him is slipping in his own ZANU-PF party.
By Frederick Tsotso
Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe is now like a cornered cat. Faced with a fast-imploding economy, growing opposition from within his ZANU-PF party and a more militant opposition, he has thrown caution to the wind and like a desperate feline is lashing out at those around him.

Zimbabwe appears to be degenerating into chaos as unrest simmers in Harare and other parts of the country, sparked by government-sponsored attacks on political opponents and an economic meltdown that is fuelling public anger against Mugabe and his ruling party.

Matters came to a head on March 11 with the arrest of Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, and other political, civil society and student leaders and human rights activists. They were detained as they were on their way to a prayer meeting in the capital Harare, organised by the pro-democracy Christian Alliance.

After their arrest, leaders including Tsvangirai and Lovemore Madhuku, the chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, were badly beaten by police while in custody, according to supporters who gained access to them. Tsvangirai and others were initially denied access to lawyers and health care.

Political analysts had long predicted that a surge in police violence could shift the confrontation between the Mugabe government and its opponents up a gear - taking the fight out onto the streets where it could spiral out of control.

Following the March 11 violence, the unrest spread to the streets of Harare, the eastern city of Mutare, and Gweru, the Midlands provincial capital, as activists staged demonstrations demanding the release of the jailed opposition leaders and the ousting of the Mugabe government.

But the ageing president has held out, rejecting the opposition’s demands.

Human rights workers, opposition leaders and international officials argue that the chaos is part of an orchestrated campaign by the Zimbabwean authorities to ensure the re-election of Mugabe, an increasingly unpopular leader who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.

“This is a political game that is being played,” said Alois Chaumba, national chairman of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. “There is no way we could have free and fair elections because of the amount of intimidation going on at the moment.”

Tevedzerai Marecha, an office worker in the capital, said, “Seven years ago Zimbabwe was a wonderful country. Now we are in hell; we are slowly hurtling towards civil war.”

The MDC, Zimbabwe’s leading opposition party, said trigger-happy police loyal to Mugabe had killed three of its members in recent days, in what it said were politically-motivated attacks.

The authorities in Zimbabwe confirmed only one of the killings - that of Gift Tandare, killed as security forces moved to head off the meeting at Highfield . Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said Tandare was shot dead after attacking police officers on the way to the assembly

Police claimed the meeting - organised by the Save Zimbabwe Coalition, an emerging alliance which brings together all the opposition parties, civic groups and church organisations - was in fact an anti-Mugabe political rally disguised as a prayer meeting so as to circumvent a ban on such events under the draconian Public Order and Security Act.

Lawyers representing the detained opposition and civic leaders had to file an urgent application to the High Court Chamber to gain access to their clients. It took a High Court order from Justice Chinembiri Bhunu for the detained leaders to be allowed to see their lawyers and receive medical attention.

In a serious indictment of the law enforcement agencies, the court conceded that detainees had been tortured. Justice Bhunu later issued an order demanding that they be brought before the courts immediately for an initial remand hearing.

As Tsvangirai appeared with other detainees at the Rotten Row magistrates courts in central Harare on March 13, he could hardly walk and had deep bruising all over his body and a massively swollen face. Several other detainees had to be carried into the court, and some sat on the floor. One wore a bloodstained shirt and all appeared dirty, tired and disheveled .

Disregarding the High Court order that they be formally charged, the state refused to provide a trial magistrate, resulting in the detainees being taken back into police custody for a fourth day.

“These actions are symptomatic of a rogue regime that has lost all semblance of sanity and decency,” Innocent Gonese, legal affairs secretary for the opposition MDC told IWPR.

“Lawyers spent the whole night serving copies of the court order, but the police have simply thumbed their noses at the court and shown total disdain and contempt of due process.”

Countless human rights bodies and key western governments, including the United States administration, have roundly condemned the police action, as has the European Union.

The Zimbabwean government raced to defend its position, saying Tsvangirai and his supporters were trying to court international attention by breaking the laws of the land.

“Tsvangirai knew there was a ban on rallies. I think [he] wanted to be arrested, because he wanted more support from London and Washington,” said ZANU-PF spokesman Nathan Shamuyarira.

Speaking from South Africa, Shamuyarira denied allegations of rights abuses in an interview with the public broadcaster SABC 2.

The police killing of Tandare, which the opposition has described as “cold-blooded murder”, has heightened tension in the capital, touching a raw nerve among an already agitated population, reeling under the unprecedented economic decline that many blame on Mugabe’s misrule.

Mourners at a wake held for Tandare in Glen View, a poor suburb on the outskirts of Harare and a bedrock of opposition to the Mugabe government, vowed to avenge his death. There was a palpable mood of anger at the wake.

At least two opposition activists, Nickson Magondo and Naison Mashambanhaka, were shot by riot police as they tried to lead a procession from the wake to a police station to demand justice.

Police fired teargas and used water cannons for several hours as they battled protesters at the wake, who were chanting, “Ndimi makauraya, hazvina mhosva” – “You have murdered him, no sweat”.

Angry mourners said police and security forces in Zimbabwe were waging a campaign of intimidation against opposition leaders in a bid to cripple the Save Zimbabwe Coalition.

Rita Sithole, who sells vegetables at the Machipisa shopping centre in Highfield, the densely-populated suburb where Tandare was shot, said she was shocked at the level of police brutality.

“How can they kill a person for going to a prayer meeting?” she asked. “This is the height of impunity. It goes to show how callous this regime has become.”

“These are the last kicks of a dying horse,” said another woman, requesting anonymity. “God will judge Mugabe and his police harshly for stopping people pray[ing] for their country, which is clearly in crisis.”

Nyasha Moyo, an MDC activist, told IWPR at Tandare’s wake that Mugabe’s government had created a climate of intimidation and political violence to silence critics of his plan to postpone the next presidential election from a scheduled date of March 2008 to some time in 2010.

“We are not intimidated by these bully-boy tactics,” said Moyo, wearing opposition MDC regalia. “We want elections next year, and we will make this country ungovernable if they try to postpone.”

Mugabe, who marked his 83rd birthday last month amid great pomp and fanfare, announced this week that he would seek another term of office if asked to do so by ZANU-PF party, whether the election was held as planned in 2008 or delayed by two years.

Critics say Mugabe has mismanaged Zimbabwe’s economy and violated human rights, plunging a once-prosperous nation into crisis. Annual inflation last month exceeded the 1,700 per cent mark - the highest rate in the world - unemployment is above 80 per cent, and there are chronic shortages of food, medicines and fuel.

Faced with a rising tide of anger, Mugabe has now fixed his eye firmly on the opposition, especially Tsvangirai.

But analysts say change is likely to come from within his own party, as internal opposition continues to mount. They say different factions within ZANU-PF now see the president as the major impediment to their own futures - political and economic.

Frederick Tsotso is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.

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