Robert Mugabe is striking out left and right with geysers of vitriol and loathing ahead of national elections Wednesday that could finally unseat him after 33-years of iron rule, and could also potentially change the dynamics of the southern region of Africa.
Yet Mr. Mugabe is a strong man who will not go down easily, say analysts and the opposition in Zimbabwe.
As he campaigns at age 89, Mugabe is on the trail, stirring his base: Wearing lime and red colored baseball caps and sunglasses, he has said his chief opponent Morgan Tsvangirai will soon resemble a dead dog, that the West and its imperialist leaders must reconcile with him, and that homosexuals are “filth” that should be beheaded.
It’s part of Mugabe’s standard pyrotechnics, seen before, and designed to further swing a vote that may already be rigged.
Tsvangirai, a former trade union leader who is currently prime minister in a coalition government, is winning handily in opinion polls. But he and other opposition candidates point out that Mugabe controls the election commission and its lists of voters, which have not been revised since bloody elections in 2008.
As Africa specialist Robert Rotberg points out, “An independent analysis of the national voters’ roll shows that it still contains nearly two million potential voters under 30 who are unregistered. (The national population is about 10 million.) More than a million names on the official voting lists are for people who are dead or have left Zimbabwe.“
Two days before the elections, the question may not be whether younger Zimbabweans have abandoned in wholesale fashion the dark murmurings of Mugabe. They have, the polls show. The question may be whether they will be able to exercise their franchise against a Mugabe machine that includes many powerful generals, police leaders and security chiefs, and against a leader who has stymied numerous other attempts to unseat him.
As the Monitor reported over the weekend:
In a somewhat chilling development for Zimbabwe and its people, leader Robert Mugabe is beginning to send mixed signals about whether he will tolerate the outcome of the elections he himself picked to be held July 31.
Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist for the past 33 years, has begun to speak openly, as he did Thursday at a political rally, about Zimbabwe needing only "one party."
At Mugabe's rally on July 23 in the city of Mutare, about 150 miles southeast of the capital Harare, he ridiculed his main opponent, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, in terms that set off fears that Mugabe will not hand over power even if he loses the elections. The polls are now favoring Mr. Tsvangirai, a former trade union leader who now sits in an unequal "coalition" government with the long time ruler. Mugabe is now 89.
In Mutare, in front of thousands of supporters, Mugabe said his rival Tsvangirai was “a coward like my Uncle Shoniwa’s dog, Sekahurema, which used to run away from game when we were hunting." Mugabe went on to say, "That stupid dog died without killing a single prey, and the same will happen to Tsvangirai."
Mugabe leads the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF), against Tsvangirai’s younger Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
To the outside world this might appear to be the rhetoric of any current hard fought contest. But many Zimbabweans read the statements by Mugabe – and those recently of his security chiefs – as new hints that they might not cede power to Tsvangirai and his organization in the event of a loss.
Top army, police, and spy personnel have, in the run-up to the elections, openly supported Mugabe's candidacy, and a number of them have campaigned for the veteran leader.
A senior intelligence official revealed to a reporter recently that some security groups wanted to “block Tsvangirai by any means necessary, because he is an agent of the West and wants to reverse the gains of our independence."
These “gains of independence” were in reference to large farms violently taken from whites in the last decades, and to the "indigenization" policies that require foreign-owned companies to cede 51 percent of their companies to local persons or firms.
Mugabe's party, ZANU PF, is using the same themes on the campaign trail. The party is handing out tens of thousands of T-shirts at rallies emblazoned with the words, "Indigenize, Empower, Develop and Create Employment.”
While these policies are advertised as benefiting the majority black population, it is a fairly open secret that Mugabe’s compatriots and partners have instead taken the lion's share of benefits from "land reform" and "indigenization."
Mugabe’s ministers, top Army, and police chiefs, are now believed to be among the richest in the region, benefiting mainly from the sale of diamond deposits in the Marange region. Their holdings include businesses, farms, safari firms, large houses, and cars.
Three companies in particular with close ties to Mugabe – Anjin, Mbada Diamonds, and Marange Resources – also have solid links to the Army.
Speaking to the BBC in London three months ago, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa confirmed the Army will wait on their wings to wrestle power from Tsvangirai if he wins.
As Mr. Chinamasa put it: “Now if anyone is going to say, ‘When I come into power I’m going to reverse that,’ they [the military] have every right to say, ‘Please, you are asking for trouble.’ You will be asking for trouble.”
Chinamasa continued on this line in the BBC interview: “He [Tsvangirai] will be asking for trouble [if he] seeks to reverse the land reform program. There is no one who is going to accept any enslavement."
Later, Zimbabwe's top justice official seemed to imply that other countries were making it possible for Mugabe to lose: "And if those countries impose for him [Tsvangirai] to win, that result will not be acceptable. We will not accept it. We will just not accept it. Isn’t that clear?”
The Institute of Security Studies, based in Pretoria, South Africa, claims that Zimbabwe’s military commanders are wealthier than those from South Africa – which has the most robust economy in Africa.
The opposition party's organizing secretary, Nelson Chamisa, says that while he is aware of rumors and plans to seize power by force, his MDC party is confident that the police and Army will respect the constitution.
“It is something we have heard for a long time, but as a party we believe people will follow the constitution. Leaders are delivered by the people and that must be respected. The people of Zimbabwe want change and come the 6th of August we are ready to govern,” says Mr. Chamisa, referring to the date of an ostensible handover, should Tsvangirai win.
Unlike in the past where campaigning in Zimbabwe took place strictly through gatherings and political rallies, the current campaign landscape has greatly changed. A more independent press, particularly in print, includes more than 10 newspapers. A private television station was established in neighboring South Africa two weeks ago for the first time since independence, although most Zimbabweans still receive their news from state-run channels.
The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) – a state broadcaster – enjoys a monopoly within Zimbabwe and mostly airs Mugabe’s rhetoric and positions.
Yet the biggest unexpected impact as elections approach in a country of 13 million, comes from social media, where a fictional Facebook character called Baba Jukwa has taken the country by storm. Baba Jukwa, whose page sports the cartoon image of a small, elderly man, has been pumping out material on the indiscretions and inside politics among ZANU PF bigwigs in Harare to great attention.
Since joining Facebook in March, "Baba Jukwa" has collected nearly 300,000 followers.
Baba Jukwa, or the writer behind him, claims to be a former member of Mugabe’s ZANU PF party, and says he (or she) is a “Concerned father, fighting nepotism and directly linking community with their Leaders, Government, MPs and Ministers.”
ZANU PF minister Saviour Kasukuwere last month admitted to the local media that Baba's posts “had greatly affected his family” after Baba Jukwa accused him of carrying out assassinations on political opponents. Mugabe has allegedly put $300,000 on the head of Baba Jukwa for revealing state secrets.
Commentator Takura Zhangazha argues the popularity of foreign-based radio and television stations during the current campaign owes to the “lack of opportunities” in the media industry in Zimbabwe, pointing out that they "have not been democratized."
The Monitor’s correspondent in Harare cannot be named for security reasons.