Tensions escalate in Zimbabwe

It was a hectic Wednesday in Zimbabwe. The parliamentary election campaign, which threatens to tear the African nation's peace, officially started. And indications are it's going to be a stormy journey all the way to the June elections.

Zimbabwe's embattled President Robert Mugabe pegged his manifesto to evicting white domination of farmland. Encouraged, his supporters invaded more farms. And relations with former colonial power Britain hit a post-independence low with sharp exchanges.

"The situation is exceedingly serious. Any one notion that there can be free and fair elections is a joke. There has been intimidation on such a massive scale, it is the wrong term to speak of election violence," says Tony Reeler, a clinic director at the Amani Trust, a local nongovernmental organization giving assistance to victims of the violence.

"This is a low-intensity conflict much more like what happened in the 1980s in Matabeleland," he said, referring to Mr. Mugabe's mid-1980s deployment of North Korean-trained special forces in southwestern Zimbabwe, where some 20,000 minority Ndebele people were killed for suspected opposition to Mugabe rule.

Mugabe's Wednesday speech raised a similar specter.

"Let no one ever think that we will call upon the war veterans to withdraw" from occupied farms, Mugabe said. He added that whites who did not want to abandon their farms are free to leave the country.

Hours after the speech, Britain cancelled all export of military equipment to Zimbabwe. "Events of the past two weeks, and President Mugabe's inflammatory speech earlier today, suggest the government of Zimbabwe is interested in the issue of land reform only to create a condition of crisis in which it can secure its re-election," Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said.

Mugabe and his supporters clearly seemed to enjoy the rhetorical jousting with their former colonial master. Indeed, Mr. Cook's announcement of a halt to military sales is largely symbolic, but does point toward calls for greater sanctions on Zimbabwe as diplomacy has failed and violence escalated.

Two weeks ago, African leaders, led by South African president Thabo Mbeki, attempted a conciliatory approach to Mugabe offering expressions of public support and promises of financial assistance. But the gesture has had no visible effect.

State-controlled media widely reported that commercial farmers and the war veterans leading the farm occupations have reached agreement to ease violence and not provoke one another. But in the countryside, the pace of farm seizures has increased and violence has spread to ordinary rural villages.

Mr. Reeler says there is an emerging pattern of increasingly public violence against key organizers for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and against peasants seen attending opposition rallies. That pattern is supported by a variety of local and international news reports. At least 18 opposition activists have been killed, the homes of several MDC parliamentary candidates have been burned and their families attacked in recent days.

Reeler likened the violence in Zimbabwe to the low grade war that killed thousands of political activists in South Africa as the ethnic Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party and Apartheid-era secret police waged war against the African National Congress.

"I believe this is a very similar situation," Reeler said. He said the pattern of violence showed a move into communal farming districts and the government is providing food, weapons, transport, and general refusal of police to intervene or investigate mass violence committed by the land squatters.

"There are massive wheat stoppages going on. That is the winter crop that farmers are trying to prepare for now," says MDC spokesman Learnmore Jongwe.

"It is a well calculated strategy aimed at singling out the MDC leadership at the local level and attacking and intimidating them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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