Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mugabe Pressures MDC Prior to Talks

Continued violence may be attempt to bring opposition to heel in advance of planned peace negotiations.
By Nkosinathi Ndlovu
Security force intimidation and brutality continues unabated, despite proposed peace negotiations between the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.

Some believe the violence is an attempt by President Robert Mugabe to soften up his rivals prior to the talks, which are to be brokered by South African president Thabo Mbeki

The climate of intimidation led to the failure of the two-day general strike organised this week by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU, to garner widespread support, say observers.

The ZCTU demanded a ten-fold increase in the industrial minimum wage to at least one million Zimbabwe dollars a month (about 60 US dollars). It also wants Mugabe’s government to address the seven-year economic crisis that has manifested itself in the highest inflation rate in the world, massive joblessness and poverty.

There was a heavy police presence in most of Harare’s densely-populated suburbs this week and reports of police brutality in recent weeks undoubtedly weakened the resolve of workers to support the strike.

“Images of [Nelson] Chamisa (the MDC spokesperson), Morgan Tsvangirai, Grace Kwinjeh, Sekai Holland and other MDC activists arrested recently are still fresh in people’s minds. Mugabe has succeeded in intimidating people and this is why we have a cowed population unwilling to participate in any mass action despite the hardships,” said Highfield resident Jonathan Ncube.

Savage beatings by police of MDC officials abducted from their homes and party offices last week led a Harare magistrate to refer them for medical treatment. Two of the men, MDC national executive member Ian Makone and an activist, Shame Wakatama, were apparently unable to stand on their own.

This followed the widely condemned brutal attacks on MDC leaders while in police custody on March 11 for attending what the government deemed a banned meeting.

The attacks prompted the convening of an emergency meeting of the Southern African Development Community, SADC, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, and recent elections in Lesotho.

Commenting on last week’s attacks on members of his party, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai said, “They were brutalised… They are in bad shape but in high spirits.”

Police claimed those arrested were linked to a spate of alleged petrol bombings, which they blame on MDC supporters “bent on illegal regime change”. The MDC has denied the allegations.

One political analyst said the rise in repression was not the action of an aimless dictator but a strategy meant to intimidate opponents and demonstrate that the security agencies, contrary to opposition claims that there have been rumblings of dissent in their ranks, were still prepared to take his orders.

“We may yet see more repression in the weeks or months ahead before the proposed peace talks that SADC has mandated South African president Thabo Mbeki to broker between ZANU-PF and the MDC,” said the analyst.

“It (negotiate) is something Mugabe hates doing but he cannot continue to defy world opinion and regional leaders about the terrible economic and worsening political situation in the country.”

The analyst said the attacks on the opposition, and in particular its leadership, were meant to break its spirits before the negotiations.

“They must submit to his will, even to humiliating terms [for negotiations]. Mugabe cannot endure meeting Tsvangirai on equal terms,” he said. “What Mugabe wants is to set the terms of the negotiations and to do that he must show that he is still in charge.”

The analyst gave the example of the late vice-president Joshua Nkomo against whose party, PF- ZAPU, Mugabe launched a bloody military campaign in the early 1980s before swallowing it in the much-derided Unity Accord of December 22, 1987.

That campaign left 20,000 innocent civilians dead after Mugabe openly declared that the army did not distinguish between ordinary people and dissidents. Up until now, he has used the same crude language against those opposed to his rule, saying recently that they will be “bashed”.

Tsvangirai said the proposed talks between his party and ZANU-PF offered the country a “last chance”. At the same time, his secretary-general Tendai Biti said while the MDC trusted Mbeki as a broker it had no faith in Mugabe.

“The proposed dialogue might offer Zimbabwe one last chance, “said Tsvangirai. “Such dialogue is as necessary as it is long overdue, but … cannot take place under conditions of thuggery and violence against the opposition.”

Tsvangirai said dialogue, a new constitution, an overhaul of electoral laws and free and fair elections were the only solutions to Zimbabwe’s problems.

Since 2000, Mbeki has failed to bring the two warring parties to the negotiation table because Mugabe has rejected any preconditions. Analysts, however, see a better chance now that Mbeki has been sent by SADC to speak on its behalf. They also suggest that Mbeki wants another feather in his cap to add to those he earned for brokering peace in the DRC and Rwanda, before his term ends in 2009.

Mbeki has also warned the West and the MDC against setting conditions for the talks, saying this might jeopardise the regional initiative. He has said, however, that so far he has received no complaints from either ZANU-PF or the MDC about his new role to broker talks between them.

Zimbabwe has been in the grip of a political crisis since Mugabe’s disputed re-election in 2002 and the alleged rigging of the parliamentary polls two years earlier.

Nkosinathi Ndlovu is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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