/ 31 May 2008

Zim: Counting votes — and bodies

Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s opposition leader, claimed on Friday that President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party no longer ruled the country. This is technically true. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won a majority of seats in Parliament after the first round of elections on March 29. But a bitter, and probably bloody, month of campaigning lies ahead before Tsvangirai can really put his claim to the test in the presidential run-off.

Tsvangirai called for ”peaceful members” of Zanu-PF to participate in talks over a national-unity government. The offer was instantly dismissed by the Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, who likened the MDC’s political platform to ”a declaration of war”.

In the meantime, a real war is being waged on MDC supporters. Bands of soldiers, war veterans and Zanu-PF activists have been terrorising outlying rural areas that voted against the party and Mugabe in the first round. They have razed villages and beaten, tortured, abducted and murdered MDC activists. The body of one was found this week with his eyes gouged and his tongue cut out. At least 50 people have been killed, 1 600 treated in hospital and 50 000 forced from their homes.

This campaign is targeted against specific areas and people: those most at risk are second- and third-tier MDC activists, people with no international profile living in areas cut off from the global information village. It is premeditated violence, designed to instil the fear of God into the rural heartlands of the country that deserted Mugabe in the first round. By the time the run-off is held on June 27, the roving bands of killers will have melted into the night, but the memory of them will linger on — or at least that is the intention.

These are tried and tested tactics of intimidation. And they have worked before in taming unruly provinces. A brigade of soldiers trained by the North Koreans put down a rebellion in Matabeleland at the cost of 20 000 lives between 1982 and 1985. It was called the gukurahundi (the rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains). A similar, though lesser, downfall is washing away opposition support in three provinces of Mashonaland in northern Zimbabwe. The question that must be preying on Mugabe’s mind is: Will it work again?

He cannot be sure. Here the narrative switches from atrocities that should be referred to an international court, to a parallel world of cold, political calculation. Mugabe needs to find 200 000 votes. He has already dealt with 50 000 of them by forcing MDC supporters from the villages where they can cast their votes, and he is guessing that the reign of terror in the north will account for the rest.

The MDC is also doing its sums. Tsvangirai won the first round by a six-point margin, or 160 000 votes. Add to that the vote gained by Simba Makoni, the Zanu-PF renegade supported by one faction of the MDC, and a further 170 000 votes will be gained. More votes can be culled, the MDC claims, from higher turnout, and voters returning home from abroad.

But their real hope is that the campaign of violence will backfire against its perpetrators, and will harden the resolve to get rid of a dictator in the dying days of his regime.

This may be just another example of misplaced optimism. No one will know until the ballot takes place. In the meantime, the fate of thousands of Zimbabweans lies in the hands of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), who have this week been deciding how many observers to send.

There are 9 000 polling stations to monitor, theoretically entailing a force of 18 000 observers. This is unlikely, as SADC only mustered 200 people for the first round. But if SADC is going to send in a substantial force, it needs to be dispatched now. Wait any longer and calm will have returned to Mashonaland. But it will be the peace of the grave. — Â