Tsvangirai car crash: Accident or assassination attempt?

JOHANNESBURG – The fatal car accident on Friday night, killing the wife of Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and injuring Mr. Tsvangirai himself, has left many Zimbabweans suspicious about whether this was truly an accident, or an attempted assassination.

Tsvangirai himself says the truck that sideswiped his car, drove “deliberately” at him. But members of his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party say that they are withholding judgment as they carry out their own investigation in parallel with that of the police.

Accidents on Zimbabwe’s long-neglected and pot-holed roads are not uncommon, and vehicles often cross into oncoming traffic to avoid holes that would puncture tires. The truck involved in the accident was owned by a partner of the US Agency for International Development, and was carrying drugs and other materials in USAID’s programs to fight HIV and AIDS.

Yet, given the powers of Zimbabwe’s intelligence service and the long history of top political figures dying in suspicious circumstances, many Zimbabweans are questioning the official story.

ZANU-PF (President Mugabe’s party) has itself to blame if people don’t believe their explanations,” says Ozias Tungwarara, a senior researcher at the Open Society Institute in Johannesburg.

“People refuse to believe the government because of its own actions, its abductions, use of torture, when you look at the unaccountable way that the intelligence services operate, you can sympathize with people’s suspicions. The way they are acting does not build trust,” he says.

The tragic accident on Friday night occurs at an especially tense time for Zimbabwe’s fractious coalition government – with Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC in control of parliament and President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF in charge of the key military and security agencies. Each side seems unable to operate on even a basic level.

One deputy minister from the MDC, Roy Bennett, remains in jail on charges of an assassination attempt on Mr. Mugabe. The judge who granted bail to Bennett has himself been thrown in jail by the police. Dozens of MDC and civil society activists remain in jail, although the most prominent among them, Jestina Mukoko, has been released to face trial for treason and inciting violence against the state.

The crash of Tsvangirai’s car occurred around 4 p.m. local time on Friday, near the town of Beatrice. Tsvangirai travels without government security guards, in part because of the distrust of MDC members toward government security officials.

A year before the March 2008 elections, Tsvangirai himself was arrested and beaten to the point of fracturing his skull by Zimbabwean police. [Editor's Note: The original version misstated the date on Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections.]

Yet, today, MDC secretary general and Zimbabwe's finance minister Tendai Biti said that the car accident could have been avoided if Tsvangirai had been given a proper security detail befitting a prime minister.

“Logic would have demanded that police escort be provided to the prime minister to warn other traffic, and this tragedy could have been avoided,” Mr. Biti told reporters in Harare.

When speaking of Tsvangirai’s late wife, Susan, Mr. Biti became emotional. “She was a pillar of strength. She was always there for the President and for the party.”

Accidental or intentional, the death of Susan Tsvangirai is likely to have a profound effect on the prime minister and his party.

“This comes at a very difficult time, particularly for Morgan,” says Mr. Tungwarara. “To lose a loved one and someone who was a pillar of strength, who helped him get through very rough times, it doesn’t help out, given the stress levels that MDC members are experiencing.”

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