Will anyone help Morgan Tsvangirai?

by on April 13th, 2008

It may be necessary to use methods other than constitutional ones.

– Robert Mugabe

Bulletin from LUSAKA, Zambia (AP) April 13: Southern African leaders discussed Zimbabwe’s deepening electoral crisis in a marathon summit that ended before dawn Sunday with a declaration that failed to criticize the absent President Robert Mugabe. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who claims to have won the March 29 election outright, had wanted the leaders to press Mugabe to resign after 28 years as Zimbabwe’s leader.

Western powers, the United Nations and regional church, democracy and human rights groups had called for the meeting to demand an immediate announcement of the long-delayed election results. Instead, the declaration issued at the end of the 12-hour summit called for the expeditious verification of results in the presence of the candidates or their agents “within the rule of law.” The declaration also urged “all parties to accept the results when they are announced.” Independent tallies indicate Mugabe lost the election, but garnered enough votes to force a runoff.

Lusaka and Johannesburg – Robert Mugabe has lost an election that he rigged. Still, he clings to power in Zimbabwe. The country’s hungry people sink deeper into poverty, but the world cannot find a way to resolve this continuing political and human crisis.

Mugabe’s own hand-picked electoral commission posted results of the March 29 balloting outside each polling station but did not released the totals publicly, leading to yet another stalemate that keeps the 84-year old Mugabe in power. The party of opposition leader Tsvangirai, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has gone to almost every polling station to add up the votes. The MDC claims that Tsvangirai won with 50.3 percent even with extensive cheating by Mugabe, who had 42.9 percent. An independent election monitoring group put Tsvangirai at 49.4 and Mugabe at 41.8. That is important. To avoid a run-off (which Mugabe forces could be expected to rig with greater efficiency than they demonstrated March 29) Tsvangirai needs to exceed 50 percent in the first round of balloting.

Bulletin from LUSAKA (AP) April 13: The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission said it would conduct a full recount on April 19 of the presidential and parliamentary ballots cast in 23 constituencies – all but one of them won by the opposition, the state-run Sunday Mail newspaper reported. Commission chairman George Chiweshe said candidates, party representatives and observers would be allowed to witness the process, the paper said. Mugabe’s party had demanded a recount, even without results of presidential elections announced.

Seven Mugabe-appointed electoral commissioners have been charged with criminal conduct for (you may not believe it!) rigging results in favor of the opposition. Ruling party officials vowed to purge the feckless commissioners before the second round of balloting. Tsvangirai alleges that the seven targeted election officials will offer phony confessions in exchange for payoffs and transportation out of the country for themselves and their families. More likely, the seven will be abandoned by Mugabe when they have served their purpose. That would follow past patterns.

For now, the seven are the keys to control of Parliament. They are from areas that voted in new opposition members of the Zimbabwean parliament, which went from ruling party control to opposition control. If all seven have their results reversed, the old Mugabe buddies will regain control of parliament.

An opposition leader suggests wryly that the seven officials did not cheat enough to suit Mugabe.

As he fights to prevent Tsvangirai from crossing 50 percent, Mugabe has started his run-off campaign. He has charged that Tsvangirai would oust poor Zimbabweans from the 15-acre farms that they were given to ensure their votes for the ruling party in past elections. These farms, confiscated from large white-owned plantations from the colonial Rhodesian past, are barely enough to sustain a family.

Many have returned to overgrown African bush or become dusty plots. Disease and hunger are rampant among the families of the small plots. Despair is a daily companion.

Gone are the hated white owners. But gone too are the farm animals and most of the crops. Yes, former workers now own scrubby plots of their own. But the farms are simply too small to sustain a family. What is sustained is the raw anger left over from that colonial era when a poor, black majority was subservient to a moneyed, white minority. The bitterness gives Mugabe his most effective political weapon.

Colonial exploitation

Reinforcing his fear mongering, Mugabe claims that whites are massed at the border ready to rush in and reclaim their confiscated land if Tsvangirai wins. Observers find only a few people near or crossing the border, most going out. But the claim resonates with people who have nothing except the barren land and a long history of white colonial abuse.

Bulletin from LUSAKA (AP) April 13: The summit promised to send observers if there were a second round of elections. The team it sent in March was led by a junior minister from Angola, a country that has not held elections since 1992.

Among those who have left Zimbabwe are international election observers and journalists. Without them, no one can be sure which claims are true. That suits Mugabe’s purposes. Past experience suggests that it would be hard for the opposition to overstate the intimidating tactics of Mugabe’s forces: Opposition leaders and voters have been beaten and Tsvangirai and close supporters were brought up on capital criminal charges, later found to be completely fabricated by a Mugabe crony.

Routinely, witnesses have later confirmed the ruthlessness of the government in suppressing opposition and stealing votes. But the ruthlessness has allowed Mugabe to stay in power by creating chaos and muddling the situation until Mugabe could put together enough votes (real or rigged) to win. He simply outlasts the opposition while the world watches, confused by the barrage of charges and counter-charges.

Old news?

This time, opposition leaders have issued a three-page report stating that police, militia and soldiers are spreading across the country and threatening a repeat of the bloodshed of past elections. The opposition says the attacks are part of a broad assault on both the opposition and the institutions of democracy. They are. But the world has heard that before.

As Mugabe asserts control, his old allies continue their take-over of Zimbabwe’s few remaining white-owned farms. The world looks away toward trouble spots elsewhere. Opposition leaders struggle to get anyone to listen. In Lusaka they were reduced to claiming that a second round of voting would be more violent, and more brazenly rigged, than the first. The world has heard that before. What’s new?

One thing is new and agreed by both sides: By all counts Morgan Tsvangirai got more votes than Mugabe. The disagreement is over the few thousand votes than could have pushed Tsvangirai clearly over 50 percent.

Tsvangirai knows he is unlikely to beat Mugabe in a second contest. His party may boycott the runoff. The party has called for international assistance from the African Union, among other African groups. But the AU is home to many leaders who cannot claim to have gained power through clean elections. Francophone leaders are unsympathetic and that keeps other leaders from speaking out.

So Tsvangirai has been to Zambia and South Africa to plead for help. Help came instead from Britain, the old colonial master, which pressured the Southern African leaders to hold the Lusaka meeting.

A recent political cartoon in the Mugabe-controlled newspaper reinforced Mugabe’s message. It showed British Prime Minister Gordon Brown pushing a white farmer toward a signpost leading to Zimbabwe. With a bag of £1 billion at his feet, Brown tells the white farmer, “Don’t worry, we will sponsor the re-run.”

Scare tactics have worked before. Will they work again? Perhaps not. Mugabe is getting frail and forgetful. He is not the charismatic campaigner he used to be. He cannot expect to gain many more votes unless he steals on the grandest scale yet. He is not likely to improve his performance without reclaiming the ruling party’s traditional strongholds. But many of those areas have tired of the annual inflation rate of 100,000 percent, the lack of food on the shelves in the shops, few jobs (80 percent unemployment) and a dysfunctional infrastructure. Many voted for the opposition this time. They realize but seldom say it: They are poorer and hungrier now than they were when whites controlled most of Zimbabwe’s best land. Something has gone terribly wrong in a country that should be prosperous.

Deep down, the people know their situation is nearly hopeless. They need a miracle. But they have only corruption and mismanagement in their recent experience. No one has come to help them. Still, they are looking for someone who can restore the nation’s moribund agricultural industry. That would be a huge start.

Tsvangirai is often asked why he wants the job. It seems impossible. Tsvangirai, a former union official, seldom answers with more than upbeat comments about pride in Zimbabwe and a vision for a better future for the people. A mutual friend tells me that Tsvangirai did answer once “from the soul.” He admitted that he did not really want the job. He knows the price he will pay.

A fractured skull and little support

A little over a year ago,Tsvangirai was arrested and tortured by commandos who struck him repeatedly with gun butts and leather belts until he passed out. They would revive him and repeat the beating until he lapsed into unresponsive unconsciousness. The BBC reported that Tsvangirai suffered a fractured skull and required blood transfusions for internal bleeding. The beating was determined to have been a clear case of political violence ordered by Mugabe.

“He was in bad shape. He was swollen very badly. He was bandaged on the head. You couldn’t distinguish between the head and the face and he could not see properly,” Innocent Chagonda, an attorney, told Reuters after visiting the police station where Tsvangirai was being held. Chagonda is rumored to have suffered “reprisals” for speaking out, but at least he survived.

A Zimbabwean freelance cameraman, Edward Chikombo, smuggled television pictures of Tsvangirai out of the country. Chikombo was later abducted from his home and murdered. Abductions and beatings have become a terrifying nightly ritual in Zimbabwe. Scores of opposition activists and their relatives have been attacked by government sanctioned gangs.

Since the beating, Tsvangirai has had very little political support from surrounding African leaders. Many whisper that they know that Mugabe would prefer to have Tsvangirai dead but fears bloody riots. So most African leaders ignore Tsvangirai. Are they afraid of Mugabe? Enough of Africa’s leaders sit atop corrupt governments and feel uncomfortable when any opposition surfaces, anywhere. The democratic leaders have become cautious, ignoring reality as Zimbabwe suffers.

I am told that Tsvangirai’s eyes filled with tears on that day when he spoke “from the soul.” He spread his arms toward a throng of cheering supporters. Tsvangirai knew that these supporters were risking identification and beatings to be there.

“I may not be the best for this job. I know that. But they need someone. They have called on me. Who else will even try?”

Bulletin from LUSAKA (AP) April 13: (After the meeting, the Zambian) foreign affairs minister told reporters there was no crisis in Zimbabwe, echoing statements made by South African President Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” on Zimbabwe has been likened to appeasement….

Presidents at the conference rushed away when the meeting ended, refusing to answer questions. Mbeki said Saturday there was “no crisis.”

Who will help Morgan Tsvangirai?

Radnor Inc.

Kenneth E. Feltman