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

Mugabe Won't Let Go Easily

Events over the last two weeks have added to the pressures facing the Zimbabwean leader, but the opposition will need to keep up the momentum since the president is likely to cling to power as long as he can.
By Norman Chitapi
With Zimbabwe strangely calm after the horrific events of the past two weeks, some frustrated onlookers believe the opposition has once again failed to seize the moment.

The assault on Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, leader Morgan Tsvangirai and about 50 others while they were held in police cells after being arrested on March 11 sparked international condemnation and galvanised public opinion against President Robert Mugabe.

But the opposition has yet to find a way of keeping up the pressure on the beleaguered government to open up the democratic space and kick-start the process of writing a new constitution – a key demand they believe must be met if the country is to move towards democracy.

Zimbabwe is likely to hold a presidential election next year, and Mugabe will probably stand again, putting paid to any hopes that a new constitution will be written and an internationally supervised poll held.

“I think the MDC and other forces fighting Mugabe are of the mistaken opinion that he will succumb to international pressure and change his ways,” said one analyst, who did not want to be named.

The analyst said people underestimate the concerns that drive the Zimbabwean leader. Besides fearing prosecution after he retires, Mugabe is even more worried about fading into ignominy without leaving a legacy.

“He would not be able to live with the shame, so he wants to be the last man standing,” said the analyst.

Even within the ranks of the ruling ZANU-PF, there are growing signs of dissent at a leader who refuses to go.

“Mugabe is an evil man,” said a senior ZANU-PF official, who opposes Mugabe’s failed bid to extend his term to 2010 or to stand in next year’s presidential election.

“He is aware his time is up, but he won’t let go. He is evil, a coward and doesn’t trust anybody to protect him from prosecution and public humiliation once he leaves power.”

The party official said Mugabe had made up his mind to die in office rather than face possible prosecution for crimes against humanity.

A political lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe said the reason Mugabe was venting so much anger on opposition leaders was that senior members of his own party had rejected his proposal to stay in power until 2010 - two years after his term should expire.

“After crushing the opposition, he wants to see who will openly challenge him in his own party,” the lecturer said.

Another analyst said the violence perpetrated by police was alienating Mugabe from the people he wants to vote for him.

“He is a desperate man…. He has no friends at home and abroad and therefore wants to die behind the huge walls of State House.”

To show that he still means business, Mugabe this week awarded hefty pension increases to the veterans of the 1970s war of liberation. He sees the veterans as trusted allies and uses them whenever his rule is under threat.

He has also increased remuneration for the Youth Brigade, commonly referred to as the Green Bombers. Members of these two groups now earn more than any civil servant.

But questions are now being asked about how much faith Mugabe has in the loyalty of his security forces, with news that 3 000 Angolan police officers are set to arrive in Zimbabwe next month, on what is being described as a “training” mission.

Assuming the opposition can recapture and build on the momentum of the past two weeks, analysts interviewed by IWPR predicted that Mugabe would not survive a mounting resistance movement – especially if the spirit of rebellion infects the security forces on whom he relies to crush his opponents.

Critics have spared no epithet to condemn the brutal beating of opposition supporters and leaders as they tried to gather for a prayer meeting in the poor township of Highfield, some 15 kilometres west of the capital Harare on March 11.

The authorities said the meeting defied a three-month ban on political meetings, but this order is itself a breach of Section 27 of the Public Order and Security Act, which states that political gatherings can be prohibited “for a period not exceeding one month”.

The prayer meeting was organised by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, a coalition of groups opposed to Mugabe’s rules and ranging from student movements to political parties and trade unions.

Some observers believe the scale of the crackdown, which saw Tsvangirai and scores of other activists arrested and beaten, as well as the fatal shooting of activist Gift Tandare, is evidence of Mugabe’s desperation to cling onto power and his deep-rooted fear of broad-based popular revolt.

Mugabe was unmoved by the international opprobrium, and told his western critics “to go hang” for condemning the police brutality. State-sponsored violence continued with the severe beating MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa at Harare airport on March 17 as he was trying to board a plane to attend a meeting in Brussels.

Mugabe also threatened to expel European Union and American diplomats, accusing them of interfering in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs in order to “effect regime change through the agency of the MDC”.

He charged the West with siding with the opposition parties, which he has in the past accused of being mere fronts for Britain and the United States. The detainees were accused – in what has become the customary terminology - of provoking the police and trying to make the country ungovernable.

Few Zimbabweans now swallow the official line that the police are just trying to protect lives and property. Reports from Highfield and Mbare indicate that following the crackdown on protestors, police went on the rampage, beating up civilians and breaking doors in search of MDC "thugs". Police have reportedly spread their intimidation tactics into rural areas – the traditional stronghold of the ruling ZANU-PF - to crush MDC support there too.

The government has not even made a pretence of investigating the cause of Tandare's death, or the beatings of opposition members in police custody.

While the international criticism has been strongly-worded, the reaction closer to home - in the Southern African Development Community and the African Union has been typically muted. the African Union’s chairman, President John Kufuor of Ghana, described events in Zimbabwe as “embarrassing”, while South Africa’s foreign ministry said it would not deviate from its policy of “quiet diplomacy”, adding that what it called “rooftop diplomacy” only played into the hands of populist demagogues.

However, in a departure from the generally low-keyed response from the region, Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa said “quiet diplomacy” had failed to solve the economic and political crisis facing Zimbabwe.

During a visit to Namibia last week, Mwanawasa likened Zimbabwe to the “sinking Titanic” whose passengers were “jumping off in a bid to save their lives”.

Former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, also responded with strong words, saying Africa should hang its head in shame at what one of its own, Mugabe, was doing to his people.

One of the analysts interviewed by IWPR said South African president Thabo Mbeki is facing a dilemma – he does not want to antagonise Mugabe, but he does not want to preempt a possible leadership change.

Norman Chitapi is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?