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

The One Party State

The president has come close to securing absolute power in the past - this time, says the opposition, he might pull it off.
By IWPR Srdan

When Robert Mugabe was sworn in as the first prime minister of Zimbabwe in April 1980, a cousin and fellow freedom fighter James Chikerema said he would never leave State House of his own free will. "Robert will have to be carried out feet first," he told a group of disbelieving foreign journalists.

As 5.6 million Zimbabweans (total population 11.5 million) prepare to vote in the country's fifth post-independence parliamentary election, the vast majority - hungry, intimidated and nervous about their future - would surely agree with Chikerema’s words all those years ago.

The late president Julius Nyerere of Tanzania used to describe Zimbabwe as "the jewel of Africa". But now more than 2,000 Zimbabweans die from AIDS each week. Inflation is out of control, by far the world's highest, having topped 600 per cent for a time. Unemployment is approaching 80 per cent, manufacturing is almost non-existent and agriculture has been virtually destroyed.

At some point, under present policies, the country will simply implode. Most economic experts agree that even if radical reforms are implemented by the newly-elected government it will take Zimbabwe more than a decade to return to economic levels that prevailed at independence in 1980.

Things are so bad in what was once one of sub-Sahara’s most vibrant economies that people joke wryly, “What did we have before candles?” The answer, “Electricity.”

Against this backdrop of catastrophic collapse, the ruling party is split from top to bottom, cracking along ethnic and tribal lines.

The country's main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, has expressed deep concern about the legitimacy of the approaching elections.

MDC leaders and human rights organisations say terror and abuse have swept a country whose ageing leadership boasts that it has finally given back to the people what they fought for during the 1972-1979 chimurenga (war) against white rule in Rhodesia - the land.

When Zimbabweans cast their votes in March they will do so in the certain knowledge that the economic power of their old enemy - the white colonial farmers who stole their land in the 1890s and went on to make Rhodesia one of Africa's few agricultural success stories - has finally been broken.

"The old days have gone," said one of Robert Mugabe's few friends who makes regular appearances on the BBC in London, the academic and ruling Zanu PF (the Zimbawe African National Union- Patriotic Front) activist George Shire, "Whatever happens next, the days of white power in Zimbabwe can never return."

Because of that, Mugabe, who turns 81 in February, really believes that his grateful people will ignore their present appalling economic problems and return his splintered but - to his mind - purified ruling party for another five years.

"What we are about to see is a cross between a quasi-mystical coronation ritual and an African-style smelling out ceremony sanctifying those at the top and exposing those at the bottom to the wrath of the state," said veteran journalist Michael Hartnack in Harare.

The Zimbabwean historian and journalist Lawrence Vambe adds with great sadness in his voice, "Robert has betrayed almost every principle black people ever fought for, lost their lives for, between 1972 and 1979 when more than 30,000 people were killed by the soldiers of the Rhodesian Army. He has become the new Ian Smith - stubborn, opinionated, isolated and remote from the day-to-day sufferings of ordinary men, women and children. Yet, tragically, I know he will win this election."

One hundred and twenty MPs will be returned to parliament in the March poll - no precise date has yet been set. Mugabe is then allowed to appoint another 30 people who have been, and will be again, ZANU PF loyalists. Twenty are from civil society and ten are tribal chiefs.

Zanu PF needs 105 of the total 150 national assembly seats to be able to alter the constitution, and MDC leaders believe Mugabe would then do everything in his power in the weeks ahead to secure a de jure one party state.

His weapons already include total control of the police, army and some 50,000 National Youth Service recruits, who are deployed much as the brownshirts were in the early years of Adolf Hitler’s rule, intimidating and crushing extra-judicially - and frequently raping - any who dare to criticise the president and ruling party.

Respect for western-style democracy means nothing to Mugabe who delights in America's latest description of his country as "an outpost of tyranny".

His chosen role today is to pose as the champion of Africa's long lost rights and he does so with panache, brilliance and huge intelligence. In recent weeks, the government has passed laws and implemented policies that have substantially increased repression.

* Two electoral laws became effective last week that entrench presidential control of all aspects of the March elections with Mugabe able to appoint all electoral commissioners.

* Another bill about to be passed provides jail sentences up to ten years for anyone convicted of publishing or passing on information deemed to be " false or prejudicial to the state"

* A new press law carries a two-year jail term for any journalist working in the country without a government-issued licence.

* A newly passed bill empowers the government to close any non-governmental organisation or charity. It also bans human rights groups from receiving foreign funding.

Mugabe has come close to securing absolute power in the past. This time he might pull it off and enshrine as part of his legacy the return of the land to the people, offering the illusion of stability by fatally weakening an opposition who, he asserts, are the "tea boys" of British imperialism and neo-colonialism.

In 2000, the MDC won 57 of the 120 parliamentary seats in a brief spell of opposition optimism. Two years later, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai came close to winning the presidency - events that inspired Mugabe to trigger massive land invasions of white-owned farms which have brought Zimbabwe to its present plight but which enabled the president to reassert his domination.

Over the next few weeks, the MDC’s gains seem likely to be reversed because of the power that Mugabe has gained and his willingness to enforce control by brute force. This, after all, is a man who once boasted that he had “many degrees in violence” and warned his main opponent, Tsvangirai, “Does he know where we come from? If he comes that way we will blow him away like a fly.”

There are now an estimated 400,000 Zimbabweans living in self-imposed exile in Britain. In South Africa, there are more than two million black Zimbabweans in exile who, like their compatriots in Britain, will not be permitted to vote in the election.

Many exiles are from Matabeleland, Zimbabwe's western province, where more than 25,000 black civilians were slaughtered in the early 1980s by soldiers of Mugabe's Praetorian Guard, the ruthless Fifth Brigade, which had been specially trained in the Nyanga Mountains by North Korean military instructors.

The Fifth Brigade's instruction was to wipe out "dissidents" and other supporters of Mugabe's biggest-ever rival for power, Joshua Nkomo.

In 1983, Nkomo set a trend by first fleeing Zimbabwe for Botswana and then Britain before coming to terms with Mugabe by disbanding his own party, ZAPU (the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union), and folding it into Mugabe's ruling, and increasingly all-powerful, ZANU, to form ZANU PF.

Some called Nkomo the Father of Zimbabwean nationalism. Others said he was the uncrowned King of Matabeleland.

"Today Mugabe sees himself as some sort of Shona king or tribal chief," said Vambe, a fellow Shona. The Shona are Zimbabwe's majority tribal group, in the north and east of the country, from which Mugabe's guerrilla fighters drew their strength during the 1970s liberation war.

A victory for ZANU PF in the March 2005 election would extend Mugabe's uninterrupted reign as head of state to nearly 30 years. There will be an installation ceremony amounting almost to a royal coronation, with Mugabe draped in a leopard skin while bearing a knobkerrie, the symbols of African royalty. "In Zimbabwean culture, kings are only replaced when they die," said Mugabe's anti-corruption minister, Didymus Mutasa.

There are some in Zimbabwe who deeply believe that this African despot - who despite his age has amazing stores of energy and a formidable intellect, which raises him well above the level of people who remain his loyal sycophants - really wants to create a dynasty. Chikerema asserts that Mugabe has ambitions for his own son, Robert Mugabe Jr, who is now a teenager studying - as did his father - at a well funded and highly respected Roman Catholic mission school.

"He so adores Kim Il Sung and Third World leaders whose children follow them into the hot seat of power," said Chikerema, who remembers his relative in the 1930s as a moody child cattle herder who could just suddenly "sulk and withdraw his herd from the others” and drive them to secluded pastures.

His deepest wish, say those who know him best, is to be acclaimed as the man who really did return the long ago stolen land to his massively grateful people, even though the hundreds of thousands of villagers encouraged to take over the land in 2000 are now being evicted and their huts burned to make way for top politicians, judges, soldiers and policemen.

“This election will just help to consolidate ZANU PF’s authoritarian rule in Zimbabwe,” said professor Brian Raftopoulos, head of the University of Zimbabwe’s Institute of Development Studies. “Mugabe has a cunning strategy, but it will not resolve the fundamental issues around economic reconstruction and democratisation.”

Before going into his last battle against the Romans, Galgacus, Chief of the Caledonians, described his enemies thus, "Pillagers of the world, they have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder. East and west alike have failed to satisfy them. To robbery, butchery and rapine, they give the lying name 'government'. They create a desert and call it peace."

That might easily be Tsvangirai describing Mugabe and Zanu PF on the eve of the country's important 2005 parliamentary election, which is sadly predictable in its outcome.

Author and broadcaster Trevor Grundy lived and worked as a foreign correspondent in Zimbabwe for Time magazine, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Scotsman from 1976 to 1996.