Mugabe launches crackdown ahead of runoff vote

Hundreds of war veterans – a potent force for President Mugabe – marched through Zimbabwe's capital Friday condemning the opposition for claiming it won the March 29 elections.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With riot police swooping in to arrest foreign journalists on Thursday evening, and separate police units raiding the Harare offices of the main opposition party, President Robert Mugabe seems to have signaled that he is not going to concede defeat in the March 29 elections easily.

On Friday, Mr. Mugabe's key allies – veterans of the 1970s liberation war against the former white-dominated government – marched through Harare and threatened to unleash chaos if he fell from power.

Meanwhile, Mugabe met with his top Politburo advisers, as well as other supporters, such as leaders of his youth militia wing, to decide the cabal's next steps.

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After the five-hour meeting, his ruling ZANU-PF announced that Mugabe should contest a runoff vote against opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai if neither wins a majority in last Saturday's vote.

Although official results for the presidential vote have not yet been released, most projections show that Mugabe lost the first round and would lose a fair runoff. With his hold on power so threatened, many observers expect a very difficult period ahead.

"This could be the beginning of a clampdown," says Chris Maroleng, a Zimbabwe expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, as Pretoria, South Africa is now called. "Now that all the foreign observers have left, [Mugabe] knows he can get a lot of things done, by arresting the media, and then targeting the opposition.

"What this shows is that Mugabe is preparing for the runoff, but he will do it on his terms," says Mr. Maroleng. "If it does become a clampdown, it will be sharp and vicious."

Mugabe's reliance on force

Mugabe has ordered many clampdowns before, in which journalists and opposition leaders have been arrested and beaten and whole communities have been terrorized with the use of armed gangs loyal to Mugabe and his ruling party, the ZANU-PF.

Shortly after the 2002 presidential elections, Mugabe had his nemesis – leader of the opposition Movemement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai – arrested and tried on charges of plotting to assassinate him. The charges were later dropped for lack of evidence.

Mugabe's reliance on private militias – particularly war veterans – escalated after he lost a key constitutional referendum in 2000 that would have given the government the power to seize farms owned by whites and award them to black Zimbabweans.

Mugabe used war veterans to punish white farmers who supported the "No" vote in 2000 by allowing "land invasions" where the veterans surrounded white-owned farms and took the land by force.

On Friday afternoon, war veterans leader Jabulani Sibanda threatened that the "re-emergence" of white farmers in some parts of the country this week may force the former liberation fighters to disrespect the outcome of the March 29 vote.

Mr. Sibanda said this while addressing a press conference in Harare after meeting Mugabe, who later went into a closed door Politburo meeting.

Foreign interference?

Sibanda said the war veterans were being pushed to a situation where they felt the elections were being influenced by foreigners hostile to Zimbabwe.

"To us, democracy is not the totality of our struggle," he said. "Democracy, among other freedoms, is part and parcel of the freedom we fought for: freedom to our own land and to choose our leadership.

"We must not be pushed into a situation where we feel there is a lot of infringement by outsiders in the process of elections within our country," he said. "This may compel us to fail to continue to respect elections. There is no country in the world that can continue under severe provocation and believe things are normal.

"We won't sit back and watch," he said, without elaborating on what actions the war veterans would take. "So that invasion should stop or it will be stopped immediately."

He said the pronunciation by the MDC that it had won the presidential election outright with 50.3 percent of the vote was illegal and a provocation of the war veterans because the Zimbawe Electoral Commission (ZEC) had not made any announcement.

Sibanda said the elections had been held under difficult conditions that had seen people voting for the opposition "because of hunger" that Sibanda blames on Western economic sanctions against Zimbabwe. "The elections have been held under difficult conditions of sanctions, they have been imposed against us as a weapon by imperialist countries to shift the minds of the people from continuing the struggle for which they have labored so much," he said.

The arrests of the journalists, the raid of the MDC offices, and the threats of Mugabe's war veteran allies all fit a pattern of deliberate intimidation to scatter the strength of the opposition, both in urban and in farflung rural areas.

"My guess is that [Mugabe] wants to declare a state of emergency. He wants to say that giving power to the MDC is like giving power to the British," says Dumiso Matshazi, an unsuccessful parliamentary candidate from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. "I think we're headed toward chaos."

Mass killings of perceived opponents

The Mugabe regime has used violence against its opponents since the very beginning, particularly against the ethnic Ndebele people of Matabeleland. From 1983 to 1987, Mugabe's North Korean-trained 5th Brigade carried out a counter-insurgency campaign, targeting villages thought to be supporting a rival liberation army against white rule called ZAPU. During the so-called Gukurahundi campaign, nearly 20,000 civilians are thought to have been killed.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," says Sikhumbuzo Ndiweni, a former Zimbabwe army colonel and now a political analyst in Johannesburg. "They will start with the people who reported these things to the world, then they go after the MDC, and then they go for the real enemy, those ZANU-PF people and military personnel who rebelled against Mugabe, and voted for Simba Makoni. It can turn really bloody."

Mr. Makoni was Mugabe's former finance minister, who ran as an independent candidate, and his projected 8 percent of the vote is thought to have come from ZANU-PF members.

The prevalence of Makoni supporters within the military and intelligence agencies may have spread doubt among Mugabe's cabal about who they could trust, experts say. This may have weakened the ZANU-PF's ability to rig elections last Saturday.

Across the country, as police forces increased their presence on the streets, business appeared to return to usual. But many of the activists who ran election campaigns against Mugabe or served as election observers have started to keep a lower profile.

Lawyers representing the two foreign journalists arrested Thursday night – New York Times reporter Barry Bearak and a British journalist – had still not been granted access to them as of Friday noon.

Mr. Bearak and the British journalist are being held at Harare Central Police Station under charges of practicing journalism without accreditation.

One election observer for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, Dileepan Sivapathasundaram, was detained at Harare airport as he was leaving the country. His whereabouts were still uncertain on Friday.

Irene Petras of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), who is closely following the developments, expressed concerned that lawyers were having difficulty getting to their clients. She said ZLHR yesterday night sent two lawyers from her organization – Tafadzwa Mugabe and Dzimbabwe Chimbwa – but failed to talk to the two journalists.

Ms. Petras said the two journalists were arrested when armed policemen raided the York Lodge hotel in Harare, demanding to see their accreditation for covering the elections in Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, a second group of police officers raided and ransacked the offices off the MDC, in Harare.

Mr. Ndiweni, the political analyst, says that the looming crackdown seems to be taking the MDC off guard. "They don't seem to have a Plan B," he says. "They seem to be expecting ZANU-PF to concede the victory and to hand power to them."

If they don't start the hard work now of confronting ZANU-PF, and reaching out to other opposition leaders such as Simba Makoni and rival MDC faction leader Arthur Mutumbara to confront Mugabe together, Ndiweni says, "they will be betraying the loyalty of the masses who came out to vote for them. [People] will lose faith in their leadership, and in the electoral process."

A journalist who could not be named for security reasons contributed from Harare.

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