Three months after signing an agreement to share power with the main opposition parties, President Robert Mugabe has begun to accuse his putative partners of launching a guerrilla war to unseat him.
In parts of Mashonaland, where the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) made dramatic inroads among disaffected voters who had always voted for Mugabe's ZANU-PF party before, Zimbabwe police have rounded up 13 MDC members, on charges of trying to firebomb the homes of ZANU-PF members. Worryingly, police have not brought the accused MDC members to court to face formal charges, and police refuse to tell lawyers where the accused have been jailed.
Combined with Zimbabwe's stark, and unproven, charges that the neighboring state of Botswana is sponsoring training camps for overthrowing the Zimbabwe government, Zimbabwe's fretful peace process appears on the edge of collapse, with the possibility of an all-out crackdown, and, possibly, war.
"Let me state that the MDC is not conducting military training camps in Botswana or any other country as this would be contrary to the values and objectives of the MDC," said MDC leader and Zimbabwe's prime minister-designate Morgan Tsvangirai, in a statement released from his temporary home in Botswana.
He urged the 16-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) to restart power-sharing talks in earnest. "I encourage SADC to become more actively involved in finding a solution to our crisis once and for all."
While few regional experts would support the outbreak of a new conflict in Zimbabwe, most would admit that MDC's hopes of sharing power with Robert Mugabe is unrealistic and that when all democratic peaceful means have been shut out, the military option is often the only option left. Yet the MDC – an ad-hoc collection of civic activists, human rights workers, trade unionists, and disaffected farmers both white and black – simply does not have the capacity to launch a guerrilla war now if they wanted to. And by all public accounts, the MDC does not have the inclination, either.
"We'd be fools to do that right now, because we'd lose all credibility," says one senior MDC leader, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We are a democratic movement, and we are still trying to do things the right way."
If the Mugabe government seems a bit paranoid these days about external and internal threats, it may be because of the government's deep unpopularity and inability to handle the country's severe problems. Faced with rising inflation and lack of faith in Zimbabwe currency, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe simply prints more money. (The newest denomination, a $100 million bill, is equivalent to about $50 and would buy about 50 loaves of bread, if they could be found.)
Similarly, the Zimbabwe government has tackled its growing cholera epidemic by announcing that there is no epidemic, and if there were, it is a "chemical biological warfare" launched by Britain against its former colony. And when unpaid soldiers went on a rampage in the streets of the capital Harare, the government simply called out the police, prompting sporadic gunfights.
Nearly one-third of Zimbabwe's population now lives out of the country. Another third lives in constant hunger. Even the Zimbabwe Army cannot feed its own. Soldiers are sent home to eat with their families.
A government in such disarray would appear to be a pushover. But regional security expert Richard Cornwell says that Mugabe is a master at using internal problems to strengthen his own standing and power.
"It would be counter productive to launch a guerrilla war," says Mr. Cornwell, a senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane. "Even if you had a foreign military intervention, what would they do? What they would do is galvanize opinion around Mugabe. You see what happened in Iraq. There was lots of dissent toward Saddam, but the minute foreign boots hit the ground, everybody is an Iraqi."
Mugabe's regime has already demonstrated its policy toward internal threats, especially threats toward its own hold on power, says Steven Friedman, political analyst at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa in Tshwane. In the early 1980s, after having defeated the white Rhodesian Army, it extended olive branches toward its former enemies and turned its military ire against former allies, the ZAPU liberation movement of Joshua Nkomo.
From 1983 to 1987, Mugabe's ZANU launched a counterinsurgency campaign called Gukuruhundi in the Matabeleland region, where Nkomo's movement drew its support. Villages thought to be feeding and sheltering ZAPU were targeted for wholesale slaughter. At least 20,000 civilians died in this campaign, before Nkomo agreed to dissolve ZAPU and join ZANU-PF.
"What they did in the '80s to ZAPU was that they unleashed such a campaign in the Matabeleland, and when they had softened up ZAPU, they became compliant junior partners in the government," says Mr. Friedman. "What is happening now is the same thing. They have no desire to share power."