Zimbabwe's Mugabe Takes A Dangerous Path By Silencing Opposition

1 March 2002

By Stentor Danielson

Facing the strongest challenge to his presidency since he led Zimbabwe to independence in 1980, Robert Mugabe is tightening his grip on power. Restrictions have been placed on the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), whose candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, will run against Mugabe in next weekend’s election. Government thugs have taken to beating people up who can’t show a membership card for the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party.

Mugabe’s crackdown has gained international attention recently for treason allegations made against Tsvangirai. A tape presented to the government by Ari Ben-Menashe, and broadcasted repeatedly on state television, shows Tsvangirai plotting with Ben-Menashe’s Canadian consulting firm about how to run Zimbabwe after Mugabe was "eliminated." Foreign governments and non-governmental organizations have condemned the tape, saying it was clearly doctored and pointing out that Ben-Menashe has long been a supporter of Mugabe.

It is difficult to know the validity of the government’s claim that Tsvangirai was willing to resort to violence if democratic means failed, especially since Mugabe has done his best to keep foreign journalists out of the country. What is certain is that Tsvangirai is no Gandhi. He faced a terrorism trial last year after telling a rally, "What we say to Mugabe is please go peacefully. If you don’t want to go peacefully, we will remove you violently."

And even if Tsvangirai has no real plans to do anything but campaign against Mugabe, thoughts of assassination are not fringe notions in Zimbabwe. The opposition leader likely slipped into such rhetoric because he knew that many of his supporters would like nothing better than to see Mugabe deposed by any means necessary.

Let’s assume for a moment that the allegations, which are an obvious smear campaign at best, have some basis in truth. That would not simply mean that Tsvangirai is a criminal. It would be symptomatic of Mugabe’s decades of misrule: Zimbabweans are fed up with Mugabe and lack confidence in a democratic process that the president has crippled.

Mugabe’s policies bear the marks of paranoia about being ousted the way he helped to drive the British out of what was then known as Rhodesia. He is right in thinking that the ZANU-PF is losing support, after the MDC’s strong showing in the 2000 parliamentary elections. Even the harshest dictator needs some level of popular support. Otherwise, someone will find a way to do away with him. Closing off any legitimate means of challenge only encourages one’s opponents to resort to unconventional means.

Tsvangirai has been labeled a supporter of Zimbabwe’s white minority -- a charge he should take as a compliment coming from Mugabe’s government. The country’s land tenure system, which puts the deeds for most of the nation’s farmland in the hands of a small white elite, is desperately in need of reform. But Mugabe’s policy of violently expelling white landowners was rightly condemned around the world as one of the strongest examples of anti-white racism this century.

The MDC’s power base is located firmly within Zimbabwe’s lower class -- and no wonder. Inflation is running over 100 percent, and unemployment is near 65 percent. The nation’s economy has been starved of cash for so long that theaters can no longer afford to show American films. Bread is a luxury in many areas. And the depression has hit the poorest people the hardest. Foreign investment could resolve much of the crisis. But business requires the rule of law to be viable, and foreign investors are rightly reluctant to invest in a nation whose policies are characterized by capricious authoritarianism. Mugabe’s paranoia about losing control of the nation is, paradoxically, what undermines the economic base of the country and thereby, his political support.

New legislation has put up high barriers to a fair election. Civil, grassroots and foreign groups have been banned from overseeing the election, leaving that task solely in the hands of Mugabe’s government. Rules about the sealing of ballot boxes have been loosened, a move whose only possible purpose seems to be opening a way for the boxes to be stuffed. And the government recently declared that the number of polling stations in areas that favor the MDC will be reduced, in order to make it harder for opposition supporters to vote.

The concept of a free press is alien to Zimbabwe, and the state-controlled media have been praising Mugabe, reminding voters of his role in freeing the country from British rule while painting Tsvangirai a terrorist.

While Mugabe has condemned Tsvangirai for contemplating violence as a Plan B for when democracy fails, he has ironically done the same in restricting the ability of opposition parties to organize. "Those democratic rights not removed by legislation will be snuffed out by violence," Eliphas Mukonoweshuro, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe, said.

Riot police armed with tear gas have been sent to break up protests against the government. Much of the dirty work, including the occupation of white farms, has been done by war veterans and other cronies who Mugabe has been paying off to the tune of billions of dollars (which certainly wasn’t helping the economy).

The destruction of the democratic process by Mugabe and the ZANU-PF-controlled legislature has left many of Zimbabwe’s people profoundly pessimistic about the future. "There’s no way that Mugabe will lose the election," a resident of Harare said. "And even if he does lose the vote, he won’t give up power."

With the nation in shambles and little hope of a peaceful transfer of power, Mugabe clearly hopes that the people of Zimbabwe will give up. But he should not be surprised if they do the opposite.

I am not advocating the assassination of Mugabe. Indeed, that would undermine everything the MDC stands for and all the hope international observers have for its rise to power. But if it should happen, Mugabe can confidently take the blame for his dethronement in his own bloody hands.

Maybe Tsvangirai will be no better than Mugabe. Maybe Zimbabwe will simply exchange one dictator for another. But a transition in leadership that is in some fashion democratic is an important first step to empowering Zimbabwe’s people. It will get Mugabe out of the shelter of the presidential mansion, where there is hope that he may encounter the justice he deserves.

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