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

Mugabe Warns Off Protesters

Assaults on Zimbabwe's trade union leaders are undermining the political opposition's plans for mass demonstrations.

Press images of Wellington Chibebe, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, in a hospital bed with a fractured arm, two broken fingers and a bandaged head are chilling testimony to the ruthlessness of Robert Mugabe's security forces and the Zimbabwe president's resolve to suppress any dissent against his rule.

In the wake of the September assaults on Chibebe and other top leaders of the trade union organisation, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, now faces an uphill task to bring about its own promised mass protests against the Mugabe government. People are more afraid than ever to participate in public demonstrations, having witnessed the extent of the injuries inflicted on the trade unionists.

Chibebe, 42, was so badly injured at the notorious Matapi police station in the Harare suburb of Mbare that he was unable to appear in court to answer charges of inciting protesters. A hearing was instead held at the state Parirenyatwa Hospital where Chibebe's extensive injuries are being treated. The trade union chief was bailed to appear in court some time in October.

Matapi police station is well known among Zimbabweans as one of the Mugabe administration's main torture centres. Its cells have been condemned by the country's Supreme Court as "unfit for human habitation".

The ZCTU leaders were detained and savagely beaten when they tried on September 13 to lead lunchtime protests by workers against worsening economic hardships and harsh political conditions.

Their protest ended before it began when militiamen and riot police moved in to crush the demonstration amid government threats to act mercilessly against any workers who joined in.

The failed protest was just the latest of many fruitless efforts by the ZCTU and the MDC to rally ordinary people against the increasing totalitarianism of Mugabe and his ZANU PF government. Although Zimbabwe's economy has collapsed, with the International Monetary Fund predicting inflation will average 4,300 per cent next year and unemployment running at 80 per cent, there has been no significant public protest for more than three years.

Although MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai endorsed the ZCTU's planned demonstration, he did not join it, reinforcing popular perceptions that opposition politicians want "to lead from the back" and reap the potential political rewards of ordinary people's broken heads.

The ZCTU demonstration was meant to conclude with the delivery of a petition to the government demanding salary increases indexed to increases in minimum income levels deemed necessary for family survival; free drugs for the millions of people living with HIV/AIDS; the restoration of democratic freedoms; and an end to crackdowns on informal street traders, most of them people rendered jobless in a country with the world's fastest declining economy.

Riot police sealed off all routes into Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, quickly arrested more than 180 people and dispersed tentative crowds by wading into them with heavy wooden batons while firing teargas.

The 82-year-old Mugabe, who has indicated he intends extending his reign to 2010, which will mean he has been in office for thirty years, has declared war, saying he will clamp down on opposition and attempted uprisings by civil society.

He had warned that the trade union demonstration would be "at the ZCTU's peril", denouncing Chibebe's ultimately crushed protest as an attempt "to create public disorder to achieve regime change". Mugabe - in an echo of his notoriously proud declaration "We have degrees in violence" – added, "We have armed men who can pull the trigger."

A western diplomat who witnessed the crushing of the ZCTU demonstration told The Times of London, "It was carried out as a deliberate, premeditated warning, from the highest level, to anyone else who tries mass protest that this is what will happen to them."

Mugabe has warned Tsvangirai that if he follows the ZCTU's example he will be “dicing with death”. The president, in Clint Eastwood style, added, “If you want an excuse for being killed, be my guest. Go into the streets and demonstrate.”

Dr Reginald Matchaba-Hove, of Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights, who attended to the injured trade unionists, said of the attacks, "As a case of police brutality on a group, it is the worst I’ve ever seen. It was really terrible and really brutal."

According to informal poverty indexes, a family of five in Zimbabwe now needs more than 100,000 Zimbabwe dollars (400 US dollars) a month to buy basic commodities but few earn anything near that figure. Most get less than a fifth of that.

Despite their dire poverty, the majority of people are too afraid to protest. Violence and intimidation by Mugabe and the security forces has worked, as demonstrated by the thin support for the ZCTU protesters.

Edward Chakanyuka, a Harare worker, told IWPR that he decided he would never again participate in an anti-government demonstration after he was beaten up by soldiers seven years ago in Mabvuku, a Harare working class suburb. “I can never erase memories of the way those soldiers hammered me," he said. "I still have nightmares. So I keep away from things like mass demonstrations, mass action and boycotts.

“On the day of the ZCTU demonstrations, I tried to take a day off work. I didn’t want to be anywhere near the city centre. I can tell you that the element of fear is not exaggerated. We are afraid. With what happened to the ZCTU guys, I can guarantee you that the MDC will not be able to pull the huge crowds for its demonstration.”

With the southern hemisphere winter now over, the MDC, which promised a series of major demonstrations through a "winter of discontent", has yet to announce when Tsvangirai and other top brass will lead people on to the streets to defy Mugabe. The party publicity secretary Nelson Chamisa said mass protests are still scheduled, but he declined to say when.

With critics accusing the MDC of mass dithering, Chamisa said, "We are not so naïve and parochial as to fix a time and a rigid timetable for the people's struggle.

"We didn't say that the protests would be held in winter. The winter being referred to is what people would go through. It was a metaphorical statement. The struggle has a timetable and we will be able to do it at that time."

The MDC's secetary-general Tendai Bitai said, "Mass protests are coming at our own pace. People who criticise have never demonstrated, been tortured, harassed or slept in a cell. These are armchair people who will say anything and just criticise."

But a top MDC official, requesting anonymity, told IWPR that some of her colleagues had developed cold feet following the beatings of the ZCTU protesters. They fear that the assaults would be even worse on the leaders of the MDC, the only party since independence to have posed a serious threat to ZANU PF hegemony.

“People are now very scared," she said. "Mugabe has instilled fear not only in ordinary Zimbabweans but also in the MDC leadership. Some have second thoughts, and are already divided on, mass protests. Those MDC activists arguing the need for sustained protest are seriously worried they will not be able to mobilise the essential large crowds.

“There are whole issues of fear and of heavy handedness of the state. With the future of the country so precarious, people tend to protect their little spaces and are becoming extra cautious about their safety and security."

The official said that because Zimbabwe is now a de facto “politico-military junta” a popular uprising like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, or Kyrgystan's Tulip Revolution or the Rose Revolution of Georgia simply cannot be replicated.

"The numbers game will not work here,"said the official. "Rather, a more qualitative assessment of the effort against the odds should be the right approach.

“Government must realise that there is going to be an eye of the storm, so action will be incremental. Dynamite comes in small packages. People, inside and outside the country, must not confuse caution with fear."

James Jiri is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.


More IWPR's Global Voices