Zimbabwe's chances of resolving its eight-month-long political stalemate and patching together a power-sharing government seems to be in jeopardy after a spate of armed abductions of key opposition and human rights activists.
Twenty activists for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party and four activists for the Zimbabwe Peace Process human rights group have been abducted from their homes and businesses since October, in circumstances that mirror similar abductions of dozens of opposition members during national elections held last March.
Coming at a time when the MDC is under pressure to accept a power-sharing agreement with the long-ruling party of President Robert Mugabe, the ZANU-PF, these abductions have forced many MDC activists into hiding and prompted leading MDC leaders to allege a complete breakdown in trust with the ruling party.
"It puts the talks in jeopardy," says Tendai Biti, the MDC secretary general and a participant in negotiations with the ruling party.
He calls the abductions a "breach" of agreements signed between the two parties in September, when MDC and ZANU-PF agreed in principle to share power. "Zanu-PF has no respect for the documents that it signs," says Mr. Biti.
Beset by 280 million percent inflation, food and cash shortages, and a deadly outbreak of cholera, Zimbabwe is a country in desperate need of a functioning government. But a campaign of terror, which many human rights activists say bears the earmarks of similar state-sanctioned abduction campaigns of the past, could undo months of painstaking negotiations between the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai and Mr. Mugabe.
Is Mugabe sending a message?
Some experts say that may be the point.
"One of two things is happening, and they are not mutually exclusive," says Steven Friedman, a political analyst at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. "One is that there are people within the security services who don't want there to be even a shred of a power-sharing agreement. The other is that if the Zimbabwe elite is forced to have the opposition in government at all, they [the MDC] are going to be fully aware of who is in charge."
In theory, MDC and ZANU-PF should now be allies in a coalition government, after having signed an agreement to share power last September.
The South African President Kgalema Motlanthe raised hopes of a settlement on Tuesday, saying there might be a power-sharing agreement as soon as this week, but MDC spokesmen said the talks remain in a stalemate.
But the abductions of 20 MDC activists starting in October, and culminating with the abduction of Zimbabwe Peace Process leader Jestina Mukoko, her lawyer, and two of her co-workers, seems to have diminished, if not broken down, any chance of joint-rule.
The abductions of Ms. Mukoko and the activists of Zimbabwe Peace Project were well planned and targeted, carried out by armed men in civilian clothes, driving unmarked cars. Human rights activist Tiseke Kasambala says the abductions resemble those carried out by pro-Mugabe supporters during the March elections. Mukoko's group was known for its work in documenting the pre- and postelection violence against political activists, and for naming the perpetrators.
"We believe there is evidence that people operating on the instigation of Zimbabwe authorities have carried out these abductions," says Ms. Kasambala, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Johannesburg, South Africa. Because Mukoko's reports are critical of Zimbabwe authorities, she adds, it's possible that "the authorities were looking for them because of the nature of their work."
Mugabe's stronghold targeted
Besides Mukoko, another 20 MDC activists have been abducted from the capital of Harare and from the region of Mashonaland West. Shona-speakers have always formed the strongest base of support for Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, but voters in Mashonaland rebelled at election time in March 2008, giving the MDC party control of Parliament for the first time in 28 years, and making Mr. Tsvangirai the leading vote-getter for president, with nearly 49 percent of the vote.
For its part, the Zimbabwe government alleges that the MDC has unleashed a terror campaign of its own.
Zimbabwe authorities claimed this week that the neighboring country of Botswana was training insurgents to overthrow the Mugabe regime, and they have also blamed MDC members in the firebombing of homes of ZANU-PF officials.
When Air Marshal Perence Shiri, a cousin of Mugabe's who led a counterinsurgency campaign in the early 1980s that killed nearly 20,000 civilians, was shot near his farm this weekend, police were quick to cast blame on the MDC.
Biti called the government's charges "illogical."
"As a matter of fact, we are not training bandits," he told the Monitor. "In fact, the MDC is a de facto government of the day."
"We control Parliament," Biti said. "The chairman of the MDC, Lovemore Moyo, is the speaker of Parliament and the president of the MDC is the prime minister-designate. So how does the MDC, which is controlling government, want to destroy that?"
• Our correspondent in Harare could not be named for security reasons.