by Lelety Mabasa
- Zimbabwe -
There was chaos and pandemonium at Harare’s city center on January 23rd, as thousands of ordinary people came face-to-face with the wrath of the police’s riot squad, who were summoned by Zimbabwe’s aging President, Robert Mugabe. That day, about 40,000 people, including shoppers, workers on lunch break and those who were in bank queues joined together to form the largest procession ever seen in Harare. They were intent on peacefully expressing their disgruntlement over the country’s continued economic meltdown, now in its eighth year. Thirty-seven Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters were injured in the skirmishes, 21 of them seriously, when the police tear gassed and beat them up as they headed towards Glamis Stadium where MDC’s president, Morgan Tsvangirai was due to address them.
Before dawn at 4:30am, plainclothes policemen from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Law and Order section had swooped down on Tsvangirai’s residence and arrested him. They also arrested two other MDC officials, Ian Makone, the party’s Secretary for Elections, and Dennis Murira, Director of Elections. The three were detained for more than four hours at Harare Central Police Station where they were quizzed about their party’s intention to “cause mayhem in the city.”
”While the police allowed a Zanu PF procession to take place in December, they have seen fit to beat up innocent citizens demanding bread, cash, food, jobs, electricity, clean water and free and fair elections," said Tsvangirai. He said despite the police’s efforts to first prevent his party from staging a march and then disturbing their meeting, the huge turnout was a loud statement against Mugabe’s controversial 27-year dictatorship.
Tsvangirai said Mugabe was reneging on agreements reached under the ongoing Southern African Development Community (SADC) talks. Last year following the talks, the parties signed into law Amendment No. 18 to the Constitution of Zimbabwe. Then, recently they agreed on some amendments to media laws, among them notorious laws like the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) which restricted Zimbabweans' right to participate in general and curtailed media freedom in particular. The parties also amended another media inhibitive law, the Broadcasting Services Act and the Electoral Laws Amendment Act which MDC felt tipped the electoral processes against the opposition. These results raised hopes that the talks could achieve a unity of purpose in as far as Zimbabweans’ various freedoms and rights are concerned. It was also hoped the ruling Zanu PF would now be more accommodating toward the opposition in various decision making processes, including electoral issues.
However, besides thwarting the Freedom March and also disturbing the MDC’s meeting, Mugabe has since unilaterally declared March 29th as the big election day. He has also scoffed at South African president Thabo Mbeki’s and MDC’s frantic efforts to convince him to agree to a new constitution before the date - he recently announced a new constitution will be adopted after the election. MDC had also suggested that the election be postponed to allow for proper technical preparations, but Mugabe has refused.
Next month, Zimbabwe will hold joint elections in which we will vote for President, parliamentarians, senators and councilors. It will be the first time that the Zimbabwean electorate will go into the voter’s booth with four ballot papers at the same time. But come March 29th, more than ever before, Zimbabweans hope to rid themselves of Mugabe’s tyranny.
MDC also says it wants to coerce Mugabe's government into dealing seriously with the country’s economic decline, which is widely blamed on the government’s land seizures from white commercial farmers beginning in 2000. Once known as the breadbasket of Southern Africa because of its vibrant agricultural sector, Zimbabwe has been in the doldrums for more than seven years now following the expulsion of more than 3,000 white commercial farmers from the country by Mugabe's government. The elderly leader re-allocated the farms to his allies, most of them unskilled liberation fighters who are currently under-utilizing the properties. The whole economy took a nose-dive following the land seizures.
On January 7th, Zimbabweans almost believed that the SADC had finally led Mugabe to a change of heart when the opposition announced that police had sanctioned its Freedom March. MDC said they needed to seek permission early to avoid inconveniences. However, it dawned on both the opposition and most Zimbabweans that Mugabe is still the same old tyrant he has always been when the police announced their decision to ban the march on January 22nd. A Harare magistrate ruled that the party could hold a meeting on January 23rd (the intended day of the march), but at a stadium. The court said this would provide an alternative way to guard against the chaos the police claimed they feared.
Since MDC was formed, the police have always blocked its functions. Sometimes the police violently dispersed gatherings held by organizations suspected to be opposition sympathizers, even though they had initially approved them. A case in point was March 11th of last year. That day, after attending a Save Zimbabwe Campaign Prayer Meeting in Harare’s Highfields surburb, Tsvangirai was left nursing a black eye and severe bruises after police savagely beat him up, along with 49 others. The Highfield incident incited an international outcry, prompting the SADC leaders to appoint Mbeki to facilitate dialogue between MDC and Mugabe’s ruling party, Zanu PF, with the hope of ending the country’s economic and political crisis.
For his part, Mugabe closed last year a happy man after successfully hijacking public transport to ferry supporters from all corners of the country into Harare to stage his December Million Men and Women march. That day flea market traders, among many others, were forced to close their businesses to ensure that one million people would be able to march for the octogenarian leader. Besides having to force many marchers to participate, Mugabe’s procession encountered no other problems. It freely moved through the city center, marchers dressed in the familiar Zanu PF colors of red, black, white and yellow. Others were clad in traditional Zanu PF attire emblazoned with the elderly leader’s picture. They also freely chanted the party’s slogans, most of which declared Mugabe as the “father of Zimbabwe.”“MDC is preparing for elections, but obviously the situation shows that the country is not ready for the polls. There are a lot of deadlock issues that are not yet resolved,” said MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti. ”The sticking points in the dialogue process are the implementation of a transitional constitution, the political environment and the election date, which Mugabe has unilaterally set for March 29th even though the subject remains an item on the dialogue agenda.”
MDC’s spokesman Nelson Chamisa said that without a level playing field, the outcome of the next election remains bleak.
"The relevant party organs will make the appropriate announcement (about participation in the election) at the appropriate time, but we remain committed to elections. The only problem with this election is that it is clear so far that an election in March will be another farce, likely to breed another contested outcome because the sticking issues in the dialogue process are far from being resolved," he said.
Tsvangirai has since announced his party will contest the election.
MDC’s determination to challenge Zanu PF in the election was welcomed by Zimbabweans and Tsvangirai was tapped as the electorate’s favorite presidential candidate. However, although he managed to stand firm against Mugabe, Tsvangirai seems to have destroyed himself on the eve of the election after failing to reconcile with a break-away faction led by a Professor Arthur Mutambara. With four known presidential candidates so far - Mugabe, Tsvangirai, Mutambara and former finance minister Simba Makoni - Zimbabweans are currently confused on whom to vote for.
The electorate feels gravely betrayed by MDC, which was the first strong opposition to Mugabe’s 27 year rule. Most painful to Zimbabweans is that after sacrificing so much, including their very lives, to fight Mugabe, the opposition chose at the last minute to value personal rather than public good. It is undersood that Tsvangirai and Mutambara failed to agree on the allocation of parliamentary seats. Apparently Mutambara was willing to leave the presidential race to Tsvangirai, but wanted to be guaranteed a safe seat in one of MDC’s strategic constituencies -- but Tsvangirai refused. Hence the two factions decided to split the vote between them.
People think this will be detrimental. It is feared that a split MDC vote may work to Mugabe’s advantage, leading to a further five years of suffering under his rule. However, with most urban Zimbabweans talking excitedly about Makoni, the new entrant from Zanu PF, all that can be said at the moment is that although determined to get rid of this catastrophic ruler, the Zimbabwean voter today is confused, desperate and continues to hope for a clearer alternative to Mugabe.
About the Author
Lelety Mabasa is the pen name of a Zimbabwean journalist based in Bulawayo. She has worked for both public and private owned newspapers in the country and holds a BSC Hons in Media and Society Studies from Zimbabwe's Midlands State University.