/ 3 March 2008

Party members throw weight behind Mugabe challenger

Robert Mugabe’s iron grip on his ruling Zanu-PF party is being broken ahead of this month’s presidential election as senior party figures throw their weight behind an unprecedented challenge to Zimbabwe’s president from his former finance minister, Simba Makoni.

In recent days several party officials and former government ministers — including Dumiso Dabengwa, a member of Zanu-PF’s politburo, and Edgar Tekere, who founded the party along with Mugabe — have publicly backed Makoni’s candidacy for president in the March 29 election.

Mugabe is ”very worried” that the party stalwarts he is relying on to use fraud and intimidation to deliver him another election victory — despite 100 000% inflation, 90% unemployment and drastic food, power and water shortages — are jumping ship, Makoni told the Guardian.

”The huge impetus for me to run came from within Zanu-PF,” he said. ”There is support through all ranks of the party.”

Makoni (57) declined to be more specific about who else supports him. But one of his aides, when asked about the crucial position of the military, said: ”Do you think we would have gone ahead if they weren’t behind us?”

Among those likely to back Makoni are the retired army commander Solomon Mujuru and his wife, Joice, the Zimbabwean vice president. The couple represent a strong dissident faction within Zanu-PF and the military.

With no opinion polls and many voters fearful to declare their intentions, it is difficult to gauge the extent of Makoni’s support. But the former finance minister’s campaign has reinvigorated an election that had pitted Mugabe against a weak and badly divided opposition headed by Morgan Tsvangirai, whose credibility has been worn away by poor leadership.

Mugabe has derided his erstwhile former minister as a ”prostitute” and unleashed the state-run media to discredit him. Tsvangirai has labelled Makoni ”old wine in a new bottle” and accused him of helping to create Mugabe’s rule.

Makoni said he decided to run after Mugabe strong-armed the party congress in December into adopting him as its presidential candidate even though there was a growing view that 28 years in power was long enough and a new leader was needed if the party is to have a future.

”The discussion of a change in leadership started in 1995,” said Makoni. ”Beyond 2000 [when the economy began to collapse] it became very active. I had support because there is a strong belief in the party that it is time for him to go.”

Zanu-PF has expelled Makoni but that has probably done him a favour. One of the most important challenges he faces is to be just Zanu-PF enough to retain the backing of loyalists disillusioned with Mugabe’s disastrous rule while putting enough distance between himself and the party to win over voters who want a real change in how the country is run.

Equally, Makoni must win over disillusioned supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change while not getting too close to a party that many in Zanu-PF loathe owing to its links to white farmers. The MDC is itself split, with one of its two factions backing Makoni.

The stickiest issue is land. Makoni’s team says the election may be won in the rural areas. Tsvangirai damaged his 2002 campaign by proposing to return farms to their white former owners. Makoni says he will not give the land back.

He said: ”The land redistribution was to address the imbalances of the colonial past but more importantly it is to place the people of Zimbabwe in control of their natural resource to work for their betterment. The policy still stands.

”Our authority will usher in agrarian reform, which says there is no reversal of the acquisition and redistribution of land in the main. But it was supposed to be equitable and fair. It hasn’t been that. The official policy of the government is ‘one person, one farm’ but we have people who have eight, nine, 10 farms.”

Makoni plans to give black farmers ownership of their newly acquired land, reversing Mugabe’s policy of keeping tenure in state hands so that anyone who showed disloyalty to Zanu-PF could be thrown off.

Critics have questioned why Makoni did not publicly challenge Mugabe’s abuses earlier, going back to the Matabeleland massacres in the early 1980s. ”Standing up doesn’t take one form,” Makoni said.

There is a lot for the challenger to overcome. Aside from a well practised vote rigging machine, the government is attempting to prop up support with large pay rises for the army and civil servants, and free food distribution in the countryside. – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008