Zimbabwe's leading opposition party is riding a tiger of seething public anger.
The rage is fed by a stumbling economy and political oppression and is directed at President Robert Mugabe.
But the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) does not feel at all in command of that tiger and is, in fact, leery of its wild, uncontrolled nature and the dangerous reactions it provokes in Mr. Mugabe, whom the MDC is trying to impeach.
Spontaneous, violent food riots broke out across the country two weeks ago when the prices of basic foodstuffs and fuel rose by more than 30 percent. The country is "pregnant with anger" as one commentator put it, and more riots are expected. A recent poll of 2,000 Zimbabweans, conducted by South Africa's Helen Suzman Foundation, reported that 74 percent want Mugabe to step down, and 56 percent want impeachment.
MDC spokesman Nomore Sibanda says the food riots were not orchestrated by the opposition, as the government has implied. Regardless, the riots have refueled an anti-MDC terror campaign started during the June parliamentary elections by police, soldiers, Mugabe's ZANU-PF, party and his allies among militant war veterans. An estimated 30 died, and thousands more were injured in that election campaign and in land invasions sparked by Mugabe's call for blacks to take back land from white farmers.
Times are so tough in Zimbabwe that "people are saying, 'Even if we get killed opposing Mugabe, we're already dead,' " says Mr. Sibanda. "Are we as a party to say, OK, let's lose as many lives as necessary to get rid of Mugabe now? Or should we wait for the presidential elections scheduled for 2002?" Short on policies and organization, the year-old MDC says it would like to wait a while before challenging Mugabe's presidency.
"The view of the ordinary person is they want ZANU-PF out, like, yesterday, whether we have an alternative in place or not. But if you want my own opinion we should not be in a hurry," says SIbanda. But, he concedes, the reality is the MDC must keep up with that tiger of public opinion. That's why the party swallowed its own misgivings and tabled articles of impeachment against Mugabe in Parliament on Oct. 25. The beleaguered president is also embroiled in a New York court case in which the families of four people killed in election violence have launched a $400 million suit against Mugabe.
The MDC had to move quickly on the impeachment issue, says Sibanda, because otherwise "people ... might turn against their own party, the MDC."
To the MDC's amazement the House Speaker, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has ruled that the impeachment motion meets constitutional requirements. He will appoint a parliamentary committee to investigate whether Mugabe has abused the Constitution while president.
Mugabe has threatened to arrest several MDC leaders, including its secretary-general, Morgan Tsivangirai, and some of the 57 MDC members of Parliament.
A few hours after the impeachment motion was tabled, Mugabe reacted with a strident speech to ZANU-PF adherents. He threatened to ignore a 1980 amnesty declared for all participants in the 1970s liberation war and to institute charges of genocide against the country's last white prime minister, Ian Smith, and other whites. Mr. Smith, retired from politics and now a cattle rancher, replied that he "would welcome" facing Mugabe in court.
"Ian Smith and his fellow whites committed genocide during our liberation war," says Mugabe. "We buried hundreds of [soldiers] ... killed by the white imperialist forces. They will stand trial for their crimes. After all, in Europe they are still hunting for those behind the Nazi war crimes."
Sibanda, the MDC spokesman, says his group gets assistance from the white Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), as well as by selling memberships to other Zimbabweans including expatriates in South Africa, the US, and Britain. Whites make up less than 1 percent of the country's 12 million population, yet they own the bulk of the country's best land.
Some commentators such as columnist Chido Makunike with the independent Standard newspaper say the CFU is just trying to use the MDC as he claims they previously used ZANU-PF: to stave off meaningful land reform. Now that ZANU-PF is grasping at land reform to maintain its slipping rural power base, wrote Mr. Makunike on Sunday, the CFU has sought a "marriage of convenience" with the MDC.
Sibanda says the MDC "wants to unite all Zimbabweans of all races, but we do worry about unreformed whites" in the party "who don't believe they can be led by a black person."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society