Zimbabwe police arrested and then released top leaders of a political party in the country's fragile ruling coalition government for violating provisions of Zimbabwe’s strict Public Order and Security Act, which prevents political meetings without police clearance.
The arrest of Zimbabwe's Minister of Industry and Commerce Welshman Ncube and at least 20 other senior members of the smallest of the three parties within the ruling coalition – the Movement for Democratic Change-Ncube (MDC-N) – is just the latest of several provocative moves by security forces loyal to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980.
Mr. Ncube and the other MDC-N leaders were held for several hours at Hwange Police Station, near the southwestern city of Victoria Falls, before being allowed to continue the drive back to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city.
“Our president, Prof. Welshman Ncube, and other prominent members of the MDC-N were arrested this evening [Sunday] at a roadblock,” says Kurauone Chihwayi, spokesman for the MDC-N, in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. “It’s not true that they were holding an illegal meeting. We as a party absolutely condemn their arrest, and we want the guarantors [of the power-sharing government] to read the riot act to the people who are doing this to disturb this arrangement of government.”
"While the charges have been dropped, and the police have apologized to Professor Ncube, informally, we are concerned because we understand this is the hidden work of [Mugabe's ZANU-PF party] against our party," Mr. Chihwayi said on Sunday night.
The power-sharing government – with Mr. Mugabe maintaining control of all security forces as president and commander-in-chief, and the former opposition parties of Ncube and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai controlling a few economic postings – has been unstable from the start, and prone to repeated shocks.
Several ministers from Mr. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) have been detained or arrested since Mugabe's government was forced into a power sharing government after losing a 2008 election and refusing to relinquish power.
Designated agriculture minister Roy Bennett, for instance, was charged with terrorism on Feb. 13, 2009 – the day coalition government ministers were sworn in – and later released to flee into exile in South Africa. A year later, a senior member of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party called for the arrest of Finance Minister Tendai Biti (an MDC leader) for calling for an audit of funds from Zimbabwe’s lucrative diamonds trade, which rests largely in the hands of ZANU-PF stalwarts.
Will Zimbabwe's neighbors intervene?
The shakiness of Zimbabwe’s government has prompted Zimbabwe’s neighbors within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to intervene and mediate, most recently to persuade Mugabe to put off planned presidential elections until 2012.
A sustained arrest of a senior coalition member would have almost certainly caused SADC to take notice once more, and perhaps to put pressure on Mugabe to release Ncube and other MDC-N members in the interest of political stability. There are anywhere from 1.5 million to 3 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa because of the political instability and economic hardships in Zimbabwe.
While Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has controlled Zimbabwe since 1980, Mugabe’s own personal control over the party has been under question for several years now. He has yet to name a political heir to lead the party after him, and there are reports of severe rivalries between commanders of the army and the intelligence services to succeed Mugabe.
Mugabe's grip on power
Yet the greatest shock to Mugabe’s grip on power was the March 2008 elections, in which control of the country’s Parliament shifted to the two factions of the MDC.
Mugabe refused to step down from the presidency or to allow independent recounts of the presidential vote, but eventually he accepted an SADC brokered compromise for his ZANU-PF party to share power with MDC.
While many Zimbabweans initially saw Mugabe as a hero for forcing the racist white-minority Rhodesian government of Ian Smith to hand over power in 1980, Mugabe maintained many of the strict rules of political control imposed by the Rhodesian government.
Mr. Smith’s hated Law and Order Maintenance Act was maintained on the books after ZANU-PF came to power and was actually strengthened to become the Public Order and Security Act, under which Ncube and other MDC leaders have been arrested.