In Zimbabwe, political crisis turns violent

A senior opposition official was assaulted by members of his own party, further fraying the only group capable of challenging President Mugabe. Meanwhile, a former US congressman was arrested in Harare on suspicion of possessing pornography.

Dai Kurokawa/AP
Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai stands outside the East London airport in Eastern Cape, South Africa, December 14, 2013. Tsvangirai's ailing opposition party has taken a violent turn with an assault on a senior official who is challenging his leadership.

Factionalism within Zimbabwe’s ailing opposition party has taken a violent turn with an assault on a senior official who is challenging the leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai, the party founder.

The attack came at a meeting of provincial party chiefs in Harare. 

Opposition members described as youths loyal to Mr. Tsvangirai, the long-time face of Zimbabwe’s opposition who was prime minister until last summer, apparently assaulted party deputy treasurer Elton Mangoma for allegedly trying to replace Tsvangirai at a meeting first called to address the problem of emotional divides in the party.

Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change has been known more for tolerance and for enduring physical attacks by various forces of Zimbabwe's autocratic President Robert Mugabe. Yet since Mr. Mugabe trounced the opposition last July, the MDC has been riven by factionalism and discontent.

Tsvangerai and numerous national and international observers claim the July elections were rigged and stolen, even though a body of southern African nations called them "relatively" free and fair. 

But since Tsvangerai and his brain trust had claimed for most of last spring to be far ahead in the polls, the election loss came as a shock inside party ranks. The MDC suddenly found itself out of government after being in a power-sharing coalition with Mugabe for five years after scoring better than Mugabe in the previous 2008 national elections.

Days after the July loss, senior MDC officials, including Mr. Mangoma and party treasurer Roy Bennet, called for a change of leadership. They said Tsvangirai and his allies failed in four successive elections to “deliver change” in a nation that has been often harshly ruled by Mugabe since the 1980s.

Tsvangirai’s MDC is widely seen as the only real alternative to Mugabe’s rule, and the possibility of implosion in its ranks is seen by political analysts as quite negative for the political health of the nation.

“Surely this is not the democracy that they purport to champion,” says Pedzisai Ruhanya, the director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute. “It depicts the MDC as democratic charlatans not different from [Mugabe’s ruling] ZANU PF.”

Meanwhile, an unusual story developed Tuesday in a nation with few headlines and restricted press access — when former US Illinois congressman Mel Reynolds was arrested by Zimbabwean authorities. The charges related to pornography and unspecified immigration violations.

Mr. Reynolds, who once challenged the seat of Jesse Jackson Jr. in Chicago, had resigned from Congress in 1995 after a conviction for child pornography and statutory rape of a 16-year-old. In Zimbabwe, he has been involved in brokering a hotel complex worth $145 million, according to the Associated Press in Harare, which also reports that Reynolds was detained after photographing models in his hotel room, of which he also has an unpaid bill of $24,500, according to the state-run newspaper, The Herald. 

As the MDC violence story developed further Tuesday, Tsvangirai condemned the assault on Mangoma. The attack took place outside Harvest House, the party headquarters, located in the capital Harare.

Mangoma was roughed up by a crowd and one of his colleagues was held hostage for a brief period at the end of the day as the delegates were leaving. Some analysts worry the tensions in the party could break out more widely among disaffected loyalists.

“I unreservedly condemn that behavior,” said Tsvangirai in a statement that said the party was founded on principles of tolerance. “As a party, we do not believe in ‘mobocracy’ but I know that some people will be angry and emotional,” Tsvangirai said.

Outside Harare House during the meeting, crowds of youths had been waving placards saying “Mangoma rova pasi nhasi” (Mangoma go today). They went after Mangoma and a youth leader named Promise Mkwananzi. The president of the party youth assembly, Solomon Madzore, was held hostage in the building but later escaped unhurt.

They are said to belong to a faction led by party secretary-general Tendai Biti, who is rumored to be trying to upend Tsvangirai.

“The attack happened after the meeting had ended, and that was at about 5 p.m.,” said Mangoma. “We could feel that violence would break out soon after the meeting, so we agreed that I would come out of the building walking with Tsvangirai and leave in his vehicle.”

Mangoma said the MDC should not be a “fighting party,” and characterized Tsvangirai backers as “desperate … and dangerous people who cannot respond to ideas with ideas.… We should be tolerant and accepting of criticism and divergent views. You can’t turn violent mobs against your own colleagues.”

MDC national spokesman Douglas Mwonzora promised remedial action.

The MDC does not condone any form of violence against anyone. To that end anybody found to be on the wrong side of the law and either perpetrating or inciting violence in the party will be brought to book in terms of the party’s constitution,” he said on Sunday.

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