Mugabe talks up reconciliation, but is it just 'lipstick on a frog'?

The Zimbabwean hardliner utters fine words and a new constitution is near at hand. But on the ground, repression is ongoing.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, delivers his speech, at the funeral of Deputy President John Nkomo, at the Heroes Acre, in Harare, Zimbabwe. Mugabe called for 'peace, peace and more peace.'

When Zimbabwe’s controversial leader Robert Mugabe spoke Jan. 21 at the burial of his deputy, he called for “peace, peace and more peace.”

It was an uncharacteristic plea, coming ahead of what many feel will be watershed elections later this year, and following bloody elections in June 2008 – seen as a sham – that claimed the lives of more than 200 opposition supporters led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

Mr. Mugabe’s call for a nonviolent vote is viewed here, using a local expression, as “lipstick on a frog.”

The 88-year old leader is talking peace while continuing to incarcerate civic and political leaders, harass diplomatic envoys, and apply justice selectively. In the capital of Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s allies and friends continue to live above the law, many critics assert.

In one sense, progress is seen here in devising a new constitution as preparations for elections – promoted by the African Union but still not scheduled – gather some momentum. Mugabe, Mr. Tsvangirai, and another opposition leader, Welshman Ncube, have agreed on the changes.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week, Tsvangirai said the new constitution is agreed on by all parties and that he expects its passage by referendum to be a “formality,” in a conversation with Bloomberg TV

Yet many old tricks continue to be played, and civil society figures continue to be stifled or arrested. Journalists often receive threats if they are seen as disrespectful to the regime.

Information Minister Webster Shamu recently suggested that stringent measures be put in place to bar people from accessing Internet and other new media formats.

“It is also important to note that if not wisely utilized and appropriately regulated, these platforms can be a cause of strife in society,” Mr. Shamu told the state owned newspaper, The Herald, in January.

“The so-called citizen journalism … means everyone has the potential to disseminate information that is not always accurate or desirable … and lead to … internal strife.”

The newly ensconced United States ambassador to Zimbabwe, Bruce Wharton, was treated to familiar Mugabe party tactics on a recent trip to a dairy farm in the east of the country. He faced shouts and escalating protests from youth militia groups and abandoned the trip as protesters accused the US of imposing sanctions in order to cripple Zimbabwe. The farm was part of a US development project.

Against this background, is Mugabe’s call for peaceful elections genuine? Does this president mean it when he says that Zimbabweans must “put aside [their] differences,” as he told former AU chair and Benin President Boni Yayi in Harare this month?

Many prominent commentators think Mugabe is only posturing. Human rights lawyer Harrison Nkomo observed that Mugabe’s calls for peace were cosmetic.

“It is difficult to imagine that Mugabe is sincere in calling for peace because there is nothing on the ground to suggest that,” says Mr. Nkomo, who is based in Harare. “There is selective application of justice. The police are still partisan in their operations while people are still being harassed.”

Tsvangirai's spokesman in Harare, William Bango, argues that, “Given Mugabe’s behavior in the past … it is not easy to trust him. Mugabe has to walk the talk so that the people of Zimbabwe can retain confidence in him."

Mr. Bango added that the elections will also be a test of the sincerity of the AU states that have called for a free and fair process. 

 The Monitor’s correspondent in Harare cannot be named for security reasons.

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