Fighting on

Published : Apr 20, 2007 00:00 IST

President Robert Mugabe addresses supporters in Harare on March 23.-AP

President Robert Mugabe addresses supporters in Harare on March 23.-AP

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe decides to hit back at a united Opposition, which blames him for the country's ills.

VETERAN Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, who has been head of government - first as Prime Minister and then as President - since his country gained independence in 1980, faces his biggest political challenge yet. Mugabe, who has weathered many a crisis, finds the situation difficult to handle this time mainly because Zimbabwe is in the throes of an economic meltdown.

Inflation is at an astronomical 1,700 per cent and salaries for civil servants have become meaningless. Once called the "breadbasket of Africa", the country now imports food. To add to the woes, there is a crippling drought and the very real threat of famine. Around 75 per cent of the people are said to be living below the poverty line. The AIDS pandemic has also taken a heavy toll, with the HIV/AIDS infection rate at more than 30 per cent.

The Opposition, sensing the opportunity, has been piling up pressure on the President to resign. Mugabe's presidential term ends next year and elections to Parliament are due much later. The main Opposition groups, led by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), have staged protest rallies since late last year, but their unity does not extend beyond achieving Mugabe's exit.

The MDC suffers from factionalism. One of the factions, led by trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai, precipitated the recent cycle of violent events. The group held a rally on March 11, for which the authorities denied permission. In a clash involving protesters and the police, many opposition activists, including Tsvangirai, were injured and the picture of a roughed-up Tsvangirai appearing in court was frontpage news. However, the world media generally ignored the fact that the group had been denied permission for the rally and that three policemen were also seriously injured in the violence.

Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, while briefing diplomats from Western countries in Harare on March 19, said the MDC had planned a campaign of violence. He said it had set up a countrywide network of "so-called Democratic Resistance Committees" (DRCs), which were armed with "dangerous weapons". The Minister noted that the leaders of the two main factions of the MDC had announced to the international media before the recent incidents of violence that they no longer recognised the legality of the government.

"Contrary to the propaganda often peddled that the government is repressive and intolerant, no action was taken against the MDC leaders for these subversive pronouncements, making Zimbabwe the only country in the world where leaders of the Opposition can go about inciting insurrection against the government and still be allowed to walk freely," Mumbengegwi told the diplomats. He added that the Opposition wilfully escalated the violence on March 11. According to the Minister, it was not a coincidence that a meeting of the Human Rights Council was going on in Geneva at that time.

From the beginning of the year, in rally after rally Opposition leaders called for mass action. On January 28, Tsvangarai, in a speech, said that was the only way to change the government. Another anti-government activist, Lovemore Madhuku, proclaimed that he would go around the country mobilising people until Zimbabwe became ungovernable. He said the aim of the Opposition was to force the government into rewriting the Constitution. In what is being viewed as a last-ditch attempt to topple the democratically elected government, the Opposition has resorted to slander and lies about the President. One such canard is that Mugabe wants to extend his rule unconstitutionally to 2010.

Many of the Opposition rallies triggered widespread violence, which targeted shops and property belonging to the ruling party, the ZANU-PF. The United States' State Department, in a statement issued in the last week of March, said Mugabe had to be removed from power for "misgoverning" the country. British Prime Minster Tony Blair, seemingly, put "regime change" in Zimbabwe on top of his agenda. The Zimbabwean Foreign Minister was sharply critical of the interference of certain foreign governments in the internal affairs of his country.

The overwhelming majority of African nations are sticking by the Zimbabwean government. Only Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa has broken ranks and issued a statement critical of Mugabe. He said Zimbabwe was like The Titanic, and if it sank it would take its neighbours down with it. The Zambian President's statement, made after the March 11 violence, came in for sharp criticism from former Zambian President and Africa's elder statesman Kenneth Kaunda.

The South African government spokesman put the blame indirectly on the MDC and its refusal to accept the results of the last elections. The South African official said his government was of the view that "the recent elections were free and fair". A subsequent statement issued by the South African government said the situation in Zimbabwe was not being viewed "as a threat to regional security".

South Africa has said for some time that only dialogue among the main political and economic protagonists can bring about a lasting solution to the political and economic challenges facing Zimbabwe. South Africa also offered to assist in bringing about a lasting solution to the crisis. There are indications that some of the governments in the region are quietly pressuring Mugabe to make token concessions to the Opposition.

At its meeting held in Tanzania in the last week of March, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) extended its full support to Mugabe. Even the Zambian President went along with the SADC's decision. Mugabe had presented a comprehensive dossier on the illegal activities of the Opposition in its bid to overthrow the government. The SADC was presented with a choice of supporting either a tried and tested revolutionary leader or a bunch of Opposition leaders openly supported by the former colonial power and the West. The SADC, however, decided that South African President Thabo Mbeki would be a "facilitator" of talks between the Zimbabwean government and the Opposition.

This is the first time the SADC has departed from the principle of non-interference in the affairs of member-states. The SADC also announced the setting up of a study group to help find solutions to the economic crisis in Zimbabwe. At the same time, the SADC called on the West to end its economic sanctions and engage Zimbabwe diplomatically. Besides enforcing draconian sanctions on the country, London and Washington have channelled financial, diplomatic and organisational assistance to the Opposition groups and individuals who want to bring about extra-constitutional change in Zimbabwe. Many in the West think that Zimbabwe is ripe for a "colour revolution" of the kind seen in Georgia and Ukraine.

The reluctance of African leaders to jump on the "regime change in Zimbabwe bandwagon" has come in for criticism from Bishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu and Mugabe have had an acrimonious relationship for some years now. Tutu once described Mugabe as "a cartoon figure of an archetypical African dictator". Mugabe retorted by labelling Tutu as "an angry, evil and embittered little bishop".

There are also reports that some key figures in the ZANU-PF do not want Mugabe to continue after his term expires in 2008. Mugabe himself has hinted on several occasions that he will not seek another term. He is 83 years old, though his physical and mental agility belies his age.

The government's ambitious land reform programme is being blamed for precipitating the crisis. Mugabe had waged a guerilla struggle promising the restoration of stolen land to the people. White settlers enjoyed the benefits of the land they had misappropriated even two decades after independence. Their capitalist style of farming had made the country a big exporter of foodgrains and tobacco.

But the fact that white farmers who accounted for around 1 per cent of the population, most of them supporters of the former racist regime, owned around 70 per cent of the best land in the country rankled the government and all those who fought against colonial rule.

By the late 1990s, the government could no longer ignore the domestic pressure for land reforms. The ZANU-PF had, in a referendum held on 2000, put a draft constitution to vote. The constitution had a provision that made Britain legally responsible for the compensation to be paid for the takeover of commercial farmland.

The government lost the referendum but went ahead anyway with the seizure of most of the white-owned farms. Many of those who benefited from the takeover were the "war veterans" (those who fought in the guerilla war against the white settlers) and ZANU-PF veterans.

There were suggestions that cronyism and corruption played a role in the government's land redistribution project. The agriculture-based economy has been in steady decline for the past six years and the government seems to have acknowledged that mistakes have been made in land reforms.

A senior adviser to the government on agrarian issues said in the beginning of the year that the government would invite around 300 white farmers by the end of the year to run "commercial farms".

For the Mugabe government, the options are either to surrender, and in the process surrender most of the gains made by the liberation struggle, or fight back. The Zimbabwean government has, obviously, chosen the second option. It now has the backing of the SADC, which comprises 14 countries. The Angolan government recently signed a security deal with Zimbabwe. "Angola will do everything in its power to help the Zimbabwe police force and will not allow Western imperialism to take over Zimbabwe," the Angolan Interior Minister told Zimbabwean state radio.

Mugabe himself has shown no signs of relenting. He told his party faithful recently that the 10 years he spent in jail fighting for the country's independence from white rule had toughened his resolve to combat imperialism. "Nothing frightens me, not even little fellows like [U.S. President George W.] Bush and Blair. I have seen it all, I don't fear any suffering or a struggle of any kind," Mugabe told his supporters. Mugabe continues to be one of the leading lights of the anti-colonial struggle and an African elder statesman.

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