Zimbabwean officials fear prosecution if Mugabe loses

Top ruling party members are jittery about being tried in international courts.

Howard Burditt/Reuters
Zimbabwe riot police were on patrol outside the High Court on Monday. The court refused to order the immediate release of results from the disputed March 29 election.

Defeat is never easy in politics, but it seems especially hard for Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, which has steered Zimbabwe through 28 years of ruinous and often brutal rule.

Harsh crackdowns against dissent, starting with the "Gukurahundi" massacres that left more than 20,000 people dead in the early 1980s to the crackdown against university students in 1988 to the land invasions against white commercial farmers in the late 1990s have created a long list of potential human rights violations by senior members of ZANU-PF.

Prosecution for involvement in these alleged crimes – and for rampant corruption – has given many top ZANU-PF leaders another compelling reason to hang on to power in the wake of Zimbabwe's disputed March 29 elections.

Recent examples of former African dictators – most notably Liberia's former President Charles Taylor who's now on trial for war crimes in The Hague – provide caution for any official facing defeat.

Small reason, then, that ZANU-PF officials and top military commanders are expressing reluctance to hand over power to the opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai, who has pledged a clean sweep of government and a redress of past crimes.

"We cannot allow our liberation war hero [Robert Mugabe] to be humiliated like [former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein]," says a senior ZANU-PF politburo member in Harare, who requested anonymity.

The official claims that the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), plans to send Mr. Mugabe to The Hague to face human rights and war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court in order to please Western countries. He says some countries have already pledged financial support to the opposition party should it emerge victorious.

While much of the international community seems baffled by the two-week long delay for releasing Zimbabwe's election results – in which preliminary tallies show the opposition party to be the winner – the reason for ZANU-PF's intransigence may be a simple matter of staying rich and avoiding prosecution.

Twenty-eight years of unquestioned power is a hard thing to leave behind, and having a military – especially one that is equally implicated in crime and corruption – seems to give the Zimbabwe ruling elite the capacity to hold onto power, no matter what the polls say.

The question now is whether the MDC will give the ruling party confidence that they will receive fair treatment in court.

"Robert Mugabe is a person who is surrounded by idiots, fools, thieves, criminals, unemployable people," says Innocent Kala, one of the founding members of ZANU-PF. Mr. Kala served as Mugabe's minister of home affairs in the 1980s until a falling out. "These crooks are holding him hostage. If he leaves, who will protect them?"

The signs of ZANU-PF's distress are seen in the fact that the once all-powerful party is suddenly negotiating with smaller parties in expectation that when the results from the March 29 election are finally released, neither Mugabe nor Tsvangirai will have the 50 percent majority and will have to face a runoff. This outreach stands in stark contrast with Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, which continues to insist that it has won the election outright and is prepared to govern.

"For us, it is not safe to cede power whether we lose or win," says one veteran of Zimbabwe's war for liberation against the former white-ruled governmnent of Rhodesia, who could not be named. "The MDC would want a land audit, meaning some people will lose their farms. They would want investigations into the deaths of its activists, and some of our colleagues are not comfortable with that."

There is also a widely held view that senior ZANU-PF officials and Army chiefs were reluctant to cede power because they are afraid of losing the properties they looted or got through party patronage.

"In politics, you don't cede power easily, especially in a country like ours where the opposition is controlled by foreign countries," says one senior ZANU-PF official.

During election campaigns, the MDC told its supporters that it would replace all officials in key positions in major state institutions, a pledge that sent shivers down ZANU-PF spines.

The fact that the on-going political violence – particularly in the rural areas such as Masvingo, where houses of opposition supporters are being burnt down by ZANU-PF militia and war veterans – is happening with little or no rebuke from senior party leaders appears to be a clear sign that ruling party elite are determined to cling to power at whatever cost.

"If we are to leave power, we would want a guarantee from the MDC and the international community that there would be no prosecution of any crime," says another ZANU-PF official. "Even with such a clause we are very careful."

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

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