Dispatches from Zimbabwe

Our correspondent in Harare reports on the latest developments in the aftermath of Morgan Tsvangirai's election withdrawal. Latest entries at the top
July 25, 2008
29 June 2008
The end of the election of no election

The electoral commission, after less than two days of counting, has announced the result. With indecent haste, Mugabe was immediately inaugurated, fidgeting as if guiltily with the Bible. The unprecedented rush to inauguration was ostensibly so that Mugabe could appear at tomorrow's African Union summit in Egypt as a legal president. Perhaps it was also because Mugabe knows he has been lucky to have pulled this off—hollow as much of his victory may yet prove to be. There was only a week to go before the election when Tsvangirai pulled out. Zanu-PF was on the verge of overplaying the only hand it had, that of violence, as African leaders began to state in public their recognition that the situation had become appalling. The step too far was an inch away when Tsvangirai withdrew. Zanu-PF and Mugabe can probably hardly believe their luck, but they have been playing brinksmanship for some years now. I am leaving tomorrow and my only wish now is that Mugabe's ceremonialised and protracted rituals of departing Harare International Airport do not delay my own exit.

Enough already. But, for the millions who live here, it is surely also far more than enough already. A bag of maize meal this week costs $50bn. A new $50bn note has just been issued. No ordinary family can afford the staple food anymore. There is no maize in the shops anyway. The government has not imported any medical supplies for hospitals for years. Such as there are come from international donors. When the government briefly banned the NGOs, it was not only the countryside that went without food but the outlying suburbs of Harare itself. Nothing works, or works to capacity—except the Zanu-PF machine of repression and seizure. That works to capacity with immaculate precision, and its chief operators live in a splendor that neither Moses nor King David ever knew. That most of them will benefit from any negotiated settlement and unity government is the sort of thing that makes atheists wish there were such things as endless purgatory and hellfire.

29 June 2008
Counting the votes and counting the cost

The count is almost over at the local stations, and the results will soon be sent for verification to the electoral commission. SADC observers, deployed in the countryside rather than the cities, report a very light turnout everywhere. So far there has been sporadic but no full-scale retribution against those who did not vote, and the red ink used to mark the fingers of those who voted will soon start to fade. So too will the memory of what was meant to have been an election that began so hopefully three months ago, and ended in coercion and charade; scriptural self-absolutions and games of power that have nothing to do with free choice and democratic will. What went wrong?


1.??? In the negotiations between the two MDC factions before the first round of the elections in March, Arthur Mutambara's faction would have united with Tsvangirai's larger MDC if Tsvangirai had conceded a greater number of uncontested parliamentary seats to Mutambara's people in their Matabeleland stronghold. Tsvangirai refused what many observers regard as a just apportionment, and alienated Mutambara when a united ticket might have delivered the extra votes Tsvangirai needed to win the presidency outright.
2.??? During the protracted counting process, Tsvangirai and Biti should have remained inside Zimbabwe for longer periods. While the pair courted international support, the MDC felt leaderless amid fears of reprisal and engineering-down of the results. The MDC was left less prepared for Round 2 than for Round 1.
3.??? When Round 2 began and Biti was detached from the process, Tsvangirai seemed both to panic and be manoeuvred by Zanu-PF stratagems. In fact, Zanu-PF was not at all confident that violence and intimidation would win Robert Mugabe the election. The aim all along was to force Tsvangirai to pull out so that Mugabe would win by default. Similarly, the death threats against Tsvangirai worked better than Zanu-PF expected, as the opposition leader took refuge in the Dutch embassy. Diplomatic gossip suggests this retreat was planned days before it happened. Zanu-PF knew it had broken the nerve and the will of the man.


1.??? The Zanu-PF game-plan had two ingredients. The first was entirely short-term: to win the presidential runoffs. The second, longer-term goal was no more than a generalised recognition that a negotiated unity government could not be avoided after the elections, but no one knew exactly how or when to induce the old man to stand down. More to the point, no one could agree who should succeed him. The lust for power within Zanu-PF can be very indecent.
2.??? ?Having excoriated Simba Makoni for daring to challenge Robert Mugabe, Zanu-PF now faces the delicate task of retrieving him to the party. Makoni is spreading rumours that he is about to announce the formation of his own party, but this may well be a ploy ahead of his own set of negotiations with Zanu-PF.
3.??? Having alienated much of even its own support by violence and by allowing the country to drift further and further downhill, Zanu-PF has to engineer some form of economic recovery to make it electable in the future. Short-term political goals and oligarchic profiteering have left the country and its economy in tatters and, effectively, there may soon be no Zimbabwe as such over which anybody can fight. The beast is feasting on its own body.


1.???? It seems robust and decisive for Gordon Brown to stand up in parliament and announce new sanctions against Zimbabwe. But many of the proposals simply indicate how little imagination the British now have when it comes to Zimbabwe. These sanctions will worsen the plight of ordinary Zimbabweans far more than the lives of the corrupt rulers.
2.???? The US should simply stop trying to advise Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC on its tactics. I believe the rumours to this effect are true. It has been an unmitigated disaster and, in all respects, has played into Zanu-PF's hands.

The future, sad to say, demands carrots as well as sticks. The international community knows this and will offer the carrots. But the symbolism of sticks will simply make Zanu-PF and Robert Mugabe more stubborn, without weakening their resolve in the slightest. The effort to punish the hundreds of evil will punish the millions of innocent. Sanctions will prolong Mugabe. The west can have an effect behind the scenes. It should simply bypass Thabo Mbeki and work directly with Jacob Zuma, Mwanawasa of Zambia and other SADC leaders. Their proposition to Zanu-PF should contain the exact nature of a unity government—not what the west would support, but what it would finance.

The west should help what emerges from the talks, but should take no part in the talks themselves; the people of Zimbabwe cannot be asked to suffer more. One day—sooner rather than later, as Mugabe has not many years left to live—historians will pronounce a judgement upon the man which will be just and is unlikely to be favourable or flattering. That, I regret to say, is all that can be done—and it is not easy to say that.?

28 June 2008
Harare rumours

As the counting proceeds, the postmortems and speculations begin. As in all capitals, the rumour mill runs colourfully riot. The richness of rumour in Harare is addictive, but only a naif would take them at face value. But, for what it's worth, here they are:

Rumour 1: In the absence of Tendai Biti, Tsvangirai was closely advised by the US embassy in Harare. It was the embassy that advised pulling out of the presidential race, and it was the embassy that set up Tsvangirai's refuge in the Dutch embassy—and in both cases, the US embassy misjudged the situation. Having said that, the range of consultation Tsvangirai undertook before withdrawing from the election was extremely sketchy, so his own misjudgement comes into play.

Rumour 2: The incarceration of Tendai Biti was intended not only to remove him temporarily from Tsvangirai, but to try to detach him more substantively. He was offered the prime ministership in a Kenya-style unity government, and this would shunt Tsvangirai into a more junior role. The other aim of his interrogation in prison was to do with one faction of Zanu-PF attempting to uncover the manoeuvres of other factions with whom Biti had already commenced negotiations. There is a knife for everyone, from everyone, in Zimbabwean politics.

Rumour 3: Because of a family kinship between the wives of Simba Makoni and Morgan Tsvangirai—a kinship some widen to include Grace Mugabe—there may be a foundation for future co-operation beyond what political compromise can provide.

Rumour 4: This is really a swirl of competing rumours about the ambitions of Emerson Mnangagwa and Gideon Gono, the two civilians among the "six hard men" to whom Mugabe seems now beholden. But Mnangagwa enriched himself indecently by profiteering in the Congo war, and Gono has been a prime instrument in the rise of inflation—as governor of the Reserve Bank, he has bought foreign exchange wherever he could find it at increasingly extreme rates, meeting the asking price by printing more and more local money and, it is alleged, not neglecting his own benefit in the process.? Against them, and the generals, are arraigned the forces of Solomon and Joice Mujuru—both liberation war heroes with whom Mugabe has fallen out—and against them all are the liberal technocrats who would like Makoni back in the fold. All these factions require accommodation in a unity government, never mind the search for a place for Tsvangirai, Biti, Welshman Ncube and probably the only politician to have acquired some stature in the fraught past few months, the leader of the breakaway MDC faction Arthur Mutambara. Watch for the unity cabinet of the egos and the ambitions, the rough diamonds and the hard men, the residual idealists and the highly corrupt. It won't be a pretty sight, and they have still to agree the small issue of who will succeed Robert Mugabe. It is Mugabe's best chance of political longevity to help prolong this impasse. The old fox still has a card of sorts to play.

Rumour 5: In the game of who gets what and who succeeds Mugabe, it is said that Robert Gabriel becomes incandescent whenever Tsvangirai's name is mentioned. This too has become personal, like Mugabe's feud with Tony Blair. The old man might agree to a unity government, but he will fight with all his might to ensure Tsvangirai inherits no senior post, and certainly not the presidency.

27 June 2008
Relaxation at $12bn

I left my hotel gardens in the late afternoon as others streamed in. For the price of a soft drink ($12bn) they could relax, insulated from the fear that a Zanu-PF militant might force them to vote in the dying hours of this election. In Harare, at least, there seems little sign of force. I have no idea as yet as to what is happening in the rural areas. The one fly that could appear in the Zanu-PF ointment is if fewer people vote for Mugabe than in the first round. Mugabe would still win, but the MDC could claim some form of moral victory to take to the negotiating table.

27 June 2008
A staged political farce

As it turned out, there was no need for car chases or compliance. I went to some of the key reported flashpoints of intimidation and violence, including Chitungwiza and Mbare. It is clear from local accounts that the militias have gone about their work but have stopped for election day. There are many polling stations, but queues are very short and an eerie cloud of "normalcy" has been summoned from people's reserves. I see US embassy observers out in a huge four-wheel drive. I see no other observers—but this thing no longer needs to be fixed today, nor in the counting afterwards. Unlike last time, the counting is bound to be swift. The fixing was done beforehand.

There are questions to be asked about the western approach. Why not just deal with dictators directly—dictators as dictators? Why encourage them to stage these melodramas, these farces called elections? The west will now play its role in the negotiations to come, as in Kenya earlier this year, as if the negotiations led to outcomes as legitimate as anything else.

And what is the outcome Zanu-PF desires? It strikes me on the road to Chitungwiza that this is a variation of the Gukuruhundi (the whirlwind) of the 1980s, the bloody pogrom that Mugabe unleashed upon Matabeleland in western Zimbabwe, wiping out (largely imagined) dissidents—until the leader of the western Ndebele people, Joshua Nkomo, sued for peace and was incorporated into a unity government as a humiliated, diminished and ineffectual person, given a vice-presidency in which he never wielded any real power. With or without Mugabe at the helm, and probably shortly without him, that is the vision Zanu-PF has in mind for Morgan Tsvangirai. It is unsavoury, it is even despicable; and, provided the scenario contains the exit of Mugabe (for it is as much a personal as a political quarrel the west now has with him), the west will accept, endorse and finance it.

27 June 2008
The three-day reorientation

The mixture of forgiveness and ruthless satisfaction marked the eve of today's election. The MDC's Tendai Biti was finally released on bail, no longer of any use to Tsvangirai in plotting electoral strategy. The football match between Russia and Spain was displaced on state television by an immaculately made documentary of intricate fabrications about the life of Tsvangirai. Naked smearing, with added style. Zanu-PF has learnt not to leave propaganda in the hands of amateurs. In the first round, the MDC media work was so slick that Zanu-PF knew it had to learn from the opposition's example. But it is too late to take agricultural policy out of the hands of amateurs. There'll be no quick fix there.

Tsvangirai has urged his supporters either not to vote or, if coerced, to vote for Mugabe. The theme of no more risk to life is being sustained. Rumours are that the militias will be out, and I have been warned that driving to certain locations on the periphery of Harare is ill-advised. I'll try it anyway. My friends at home joke about car chases and that I had better engage a good driver. I have found the very best driver, but these things are not like James Bond movies. They are forensic. I work on electoral grid patterns traced back to the formation of the MDC. The Zanu-PF militias, officered by professional military specialists in civilian clothes, operate on grid systems that alternate physical with psychological torture. I have friends who were abducted from Epworth, one of the poorest peri-urban areas of Harare. They were taken to a remote location and held in complete silence for three days. The only sentence uttered was said once at the beginning: "We could kill you and no one would even find your bodies." By the time the captives had sweated out three days of fear and uncertainty, they had become compliant "good citzens," and their abductors knew that Zanu-PF had nothing to fear from them. Last night, in Chitungwiza, an MDC stronghold, residents were forced to participate in an all-night Zanu-PF rally. The "reorientation" continued till dawn. Mugabe is ensuring that, when negotiations come, his hand will be as loaded as possible. It is time to hit the road. There'll be no car chases. If stopped, I shall be as compliant as possible.

26 June 2008
The psalms of King Robert

It is the day before the election. Two names are on the ballot, the owner of one name being the only contestant and determined to diminish the other's name from a history he wishes to dominate and a scripture to which he is adding.

The Zanu-PF advertisements in today's government newspapers are astounding. They no longer rail against the British, or even the opposition. They are no longer about the people's struggle. That is left to a four-page advertisement from the "revolutionary movement" of Midlands State University, where Che Guevara and Bob Marley are given equal status as saviours of humanity.

The Zanu-PF advertisements, by contrast, are three pages of Mugabe's trust in God. He really does seem to believe that he is God-appointed. But these are odd declarations. The second page draws from the book of Psalms—but those cited (though not quoted) are what I would call David's psalms of paranoia, where the Israelite king feels surrounded by enemies and has only God as an ally.

The same page refers to those who are like the backsliding children of Israel: "During hardships, some children of Israel cried to return to captivity in Egypt." It is the theme first broached by the rally speaker I mentioned earlier.

But it is the first full-page advertisement that most caught my eye: "In order to be King, Absalom was so hungry for power that he would have killed his own father. Be warned, the spirit of Absalom still shows up in some of our fellow Zimbabweans today." This is extraordinary political advertising, and somewhat under-researched. The full biblical story of Absalom concentrates less on his beauty, vanity and desire for power, and more on his acts of charity and his perception that King David had grown old, senile and was no longer a fount of justice for his people. Absalom's doomed uprising was under the banner of justice.

Two things are noteworthy. Zanu-PF is making a real effort to make up for the shoddy and cheap advertisements it deployed in the first round of these elections. The new ones are less directly ideological and more theological. The second point is that they are still poorly researched. The only well-produced Zanu-PF advertisement of the first round was a glossy banner of a suited Mugabe against the backdrop of the Victoria Falls, declaring he would ever defend "our land, our sovereignty." The problem was that the banner depicted the Zambian side of the Victoria Falls. The banner has reincarnated into a poster for this round, but the sharpness of the Zambian waters has been pixillated into something less obviously identifiable as someone else's land. His media people might have to read the Bible more closely when conducting their postmortem of the current advertising campaign. King David never wanted to kill Absalom. That was done by a ruthless general. In his heart, David loved Absalom and knew the young man had just cause.

As for the man to whom the west has attached just cause, Morgan Tsvangirai: he remains in the Dutch embassy, and the Zanu-PF advertisement cannot refrain from one last scriptural dig, quoting Proverbs 28:1, "The wicked flee when no man pursueth." Not us, boss. We just created the conditions and issued the threats which caused the man to panic.

The concluding lines of the advertisements borrow from the Zanu-PF manifesto; only it is no longer "if you Believe and I Believe," but "I know you Believe, and I Believe that ALL GOOD THINGS ARE POSSIBLE." It is a surreal conviction on the eve of a masquerade. We all thought it was merely a masquerade of an election; now we know it is a president masquerading as the instrument of God. After all, Mugabe's middle name is "Gabriel," and Gabriel stands on God's left hand (this much remains of the old socialist calling) when he is not flitting about the earth, defying sanctions and issuing messages from God's throne.

And will God's message of forgiveness be extended to Tsvangirai after Robert Gabriel has rubbed his nose in the dirt tomorrow? How far will the scripture-toting be carried through by a frenzied but unpredictably extraordinary president of Zimbabwe?

25 June 2008
The brief emergence of Tsvangirai

In the late afternoon, Tsvangirai emerged briefly from the Dutch embassy and gave a press conference in which he said he would enter talks on a unity government if they began before the election, implying that in good faith the election should be cancelled—and then immediately retreated back to the embassy. The Electoral Commission promptly announced that the election would go ahead. Zanu-PF is determined to humiliate the man. He has made himself a prisoner within his own country without a single Zimbabwean jailer having been involved. Now the near-triumphant ruling-party is determined to rub salt into every psychological wound. Zanu-PF wants Tsvangirai never to recover his credibility and stature after Friday's election.

Not all of this has been down to violence. The early arrest on treason charges of Tsvangirai's deputy, Tendai Biti, took Tsvangirai's chief adviser out of the equation. Biti has always spoken too much before thinking, but he has also been a better tactician than Tsvangirai. Without him, Tsvangirai has stumbled. There are two questions to be asked about this. First, if Zanu-PF can calculate this ruthless electoral charade so well, why did it never seek to conduct the nationalisation of land with such attention to detail? Zimbabwe would not be in its present state if this impromptu feat of ideology had not been enacted so rashly and violently.

But second, if Tsvangirai is so dependent on Biti as his one senior adviser, how clumsy and maladroit had he been in allowing his own MDC party to split, with so many key thinkers and tactical minds on the other side? Even after the recent reconciliation of the MDC, the best political thinkers, such as Welshman Ncube, seem curiously aloof or excluded from the Tsvangirai bandwagon. In years to come, analysts may say that the alienation of Ncube was Tsvangirai's greatest mistake. Without that, the MDC might have done even better in the first electoral round of 2008, and what has become a travesty of a presidential runoff might not have been necessary. Tsvangirai always has been a rough diamond. He is probably a rough and flawed diamond. But he is still a diamond. It is a very sad thing to be in Zimbabwe and watch a noble, brave man stumble into such humiliation. Part of me is wishing I had never come.

25 June 2008
Off to the suburbs

The wherewithals of transport exceed the hideous inflation of soup. Daily, the price of transport increases as petrol costs rise. We obtain petrol in any case on the black market, pulling into a backyard where what used to be one-litre plastic soft drink bottles are emptied into the tank, residual contaminants and all. We display ostentatiously the Zanu-PF manifesto on the dashboard and paste a Zanu-PF pamphlet to our windscreen. Otherwise taxi drivers and their passengers are liable to hijacking and enforced attendance at rallies. The least we can expect to get away with, if stopped by the militias, is the singing of a few "patriotic songs," melodic Zanu-PF propaganda; but I know no patriotic songs and am conspicuously not black. Besides, even being a non-Zimbabwean black African might not help me, as the militias have taken the criticisms of the regional leaders to a vengeful heart.

So, even before the rigours of extracting petroleum from the black market and the decoration of the cab with Zanu-PF symbols, I must find a taxi driver willing to take me to the places where I want to go, and they are the places of reported violence. Night driving to these areas, the driver tells me, is out of the question. By day, there is little enough to see—except obvious poverty and people walking the streets hoping food might appear in the shops. If we avoid the militias, we are safe.

The youthful militias are the offspring of Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Too young to have been in the liberation struggle, they were born early or halfway through the second decade of independence. They entered their pre-teenage years as the meltdown began. They were never able to complete their education and have never had any prospect of employment. Unsophisticated but street smart, unreflective but responsive to propaganda with crude logic—but logic all the same—they are happy to accept the payouts from Zanu-PF and to be the sorts of kings for a day when they can rule, violently, over others. At even the remotest sign of them my driver turns his car into a side street and we navigate dirt tracks back to a safer main road.

People come to see me with tales of how much worse it is in the countryside. It is late afternoon, and Tsvangirai is still in the Dutch embassy. If he is so fearful, it is no wonder his people were frightened enough to urge him to pull out of the race. Why waste a life for a vote? This democracy of the west was never intended to be so expensive, but now a dictator is determined to claim legitimacy through the rituals of democracy—expedited by thefts and blood to preserve an order which is corrupt and oligarchic, and treats its own militants as hired cannon-fodder and its own citizens as ciphers to be cowered into performing a ritual to vote Mugabe back into power.

25 June 2008
'If you Believe and I Believe, All Good Things are Possible'

This is the almost biblical title of the Zanu-PF glossy manifesto, heavily stylised as both a recognition of Zimbabwe's problems and a deconstruction of the credentials of the MDC, and heavily personalised as a statement by and on behalf of Robert Mugabe. Notwithstanding the variation of futures for him, he is the front man for now. He shows every sign of believing it, declaring himself—already infamously—as appointed by God and removable only by him. It is a mixture of imageries. No one since the last Chinese emperor has so nakedly claimed the mandate of heaven. A Zanu-PF speaker at a rally last week delivered a two-hour speech likening him to Moses, delivering his people from Egypt. Neither the Zanu-PF manifesto nor the rally speaker mention that Mugabe and Zanu-PF caused the house of slavery, what the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera called the "house of hunger," in the first place. And no one dared mention that God did not allow Moses to enter the promised land. It was a young successor who led the Israelites in.

I am writing in a downtown cafe. A police helicopter flies overhead. I see the price of soup has reached $20bn.

24 June 2008
The election of no election
Tension and uncertainty are everywhere in Harare. The Zanu-PF militias roam the streets of key MDC suburbs such as Mbare and Chitungwiza. Sports clubs cancel their training sessions for fear of their members being forced en masse to attend Zanu-PF rallies. The Zanu-PF operational code for these activities is "reorientation"—as the entire electorate, especially those who voted for Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC, are intimidated. Rumours abound that crack military officers in civilian clothes direct the militias, and that a recruitment drive has begun to swell the ranks of the armed forces, with educational entry standards lowered.

Having forced Tsvangirai to pull out of the presidential race on Sunday, Zanu-PF threats forced him to seek refuge in the Dutch embassy on Tuesday. Zanu-PF thinks that it has broken the will of the MDC and has now broken the nerve of its leader. The thinking is that Friday's runoff election is intended to humiliate the MDC and tear away such pride as it has left. Across the country the opposition has been in retreat, and even gospel preachers have had threats that their cars will be burned if they are active in a militia area. There will be one ruling party and one ideology.

Tuesday, and police helicopters sweep over Harare. Mugabe's motorcade, heavy machineguns on the flanking vehicles of his Zim 1 black stretch Mercedes, makes it way to his State House. He knows that South Africa's Thabo Mbeki has never cared much for Tsvangirai. The Mbeki plan was always to persuade all parties to enter a transitional unity government, but one in which Tsvangirai is not president. This is unacceptable to an MDC that won the parliamentary elections and a majority of the presidential votes in the first round. For the hardliners around Mugabe, however, it is Mugabe or no one.

Or no one else for now. Even the hard men, all from a younger generation to Mugabe's, know that their man is a wasting asset. He will be of little dynamic use to them by the time of the next election, when he will be 89. One way or another, this is his last hurrah. But the top six hard men are not the sort who would attract amnesties from the international community, and South Africa doesn't particularly want any of them to be Mugabe's successor—no matter how much one or two of them might covet that role. There may be an eventual brokered return to the Zanu-PF fold of Simba Makoni, the third presidential candidate.

Whether this happens or not, the longer Mugabe and Zanu-PF seem to get away with it, or even if they enter negotiations with Tsvangirai and the MDC, but make the talks protracted, the more of a wasting asset Tsvangirai will be to his own people. At this moment, his future is as much on a knife edge as Mugabe's. The international community pressurises Mugabe and Zanu-PF pressurises Tsvangirai. Both could easily become marginal figures in the dismal days ahead.

Meanwhile, inflation has galloped further ahead. A bowl of soup costs ZIM$8bn in an average restaurant. The new largest bank note is for $25bn. Credit card machines have been retrenched because they can't cope with the zeroes. The official exchange rate has moved closer to the black market rate, but still with wild vacillations. Government expenditure is capitalised by printing money, but there is an endgame to that as miniscule residual value becomes microscopic value. The big urgency behind thoughts of negotiation is the threat of implosion.

Whether the country explodes or implodes, the next few days will be crucial. No one in what used to be the most sophisticated polity in Africa has a clue what the future holds. For the pressure of the international community has come too late for anything except the most fractious negotiations and the most unworkable settlement.