Friday, April 18, 2008
Mugabe's frontal attack
The ebbing regime of Robert Mugabe began its fightback in earnest last night, launching raids against opposition offices and foreign journalists in what many feared was the start of a campaign of intimidation.
Paramilitary police raided opposition offices at a hotel in central Harare, ransacking rooms as riot police moved in to arrest foreign journalists at a guest house in the capital.
George Sibotshiwe, spokesman of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said that the party’s headquarters in the centre of Harare and offices in Meikles hotel in the capital had been raided. “They took nothing. They simply ransacked the place,” he said.
As many as four journalists were arrested, including a reporter from the New York Times, in a separate raid on Harare’s York Lodge hotel, where many correspondents were staying.
The moves, described by opposition leaders as the beginnings of a “crackdown”, came after a day in which the besieged octogenarian leader appeared in public for the first time since the polls in which he was defeated by his challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai. Mr Mugabe was shown on state television yesterday meeting African Union election observers — his first public appearance since the close of polls.
Ruling party officials subsequently announced that he would hold a critical politburo meeting today to plot his next move. State media, the ruling Zanu (PF) party and even — according to some — the President himself have conceded that he lost the race to Mr Tsvangirai, but maintain that the challenger failed to secure an absolute majority.
But the Government insisted that Mr Mugabe was in no mood for surrender and was gearing up to fight on. Fears that the embattled leader may yet resort to violence peaked as news of the raids seeped out last night to Harare’s diplomatic community.
Earlier in the day a senior government spokesman said that the party was preparing to invoke “energy” that it had not tapped during the previous election. “Zanu (PF) is ready for a run-off, we are ready for a resulting victory,” Bright Matonga, the Deputy Information Minister, said.
“In terms of strategy, we only applied 25 per cent of our energy into this campaign,” he added, but the run-off would be different. “That is when we are going to unleash the other 75 per cent that we did not apply in the first case.”Unconfirmed reports were circulating among the diplomatic community about an alleged government plot to extend the three-week run-up to the second round to three months, and to use the time to shut down the provisions in the election law designed to thwart poll-rigging.
Key among them is the precedent of publicly posting each polling station’s results on its walls — a move that allowed the MDC, as well as independent observers, to collate the figures and release them in a preemptive strike against poll-fixing.
But well-placed sources were adamant that any such attempts to manipulate the process would fail, even if they were unprepared to rule out some last desperate, and possibly violent, attempt to cling to power.
“Mugabe is a villain of the first order,” one source told The Times. “He is desperate to stay in power and the sting may be in the tail.”
Zimbabwe’s African neighbours are the only countries with any significant influence over Mr Mugabe’s regime but they have thus far failed to intervene in any significant way. Yesterday’s television appearance came after Mr Mugabe met an African election observer team led by Ahmad Tejah Kabbah, the former Sierra Leonean President. Mr Kabbah has also met Mr Tsvangirai, who claims victory in the election with 50.3 per cent of the vote, but who had vowed to contest a run-off if official election results award him less than 50 per cent.
Rumours have swirled around Harare in the six days since the election, amid the absence of information. Zimbabweans, drained by the fatigue of economic collapse, have displayed epic patience in their wait for an outcome. The slow drip-drip of parliamentary results has held people’s focus as they listen to radios, keeping their own running tallies of the score.
But yesterday the information vacuum yawned open again. The long-delayed partial results for the Senate, parliament’s upper chamber, began to start trickling out only last night. The delay, blamed on logistical problems, again heightened fears of manipulation. Since the presidential tally will be released only when the full Senate count is completed, Zimbabweans suspect a government plot to buy time.
“We will stay patient because we must,” said Blessing, a street vendor in the Harare slums of Mbare. “But it is frustrating.” News of the Zanu (PF) loss of its parliamentary majority boosted morale, but only led to further questions over the delay in the release of presidential results.
The grinding logistics of everyday life under Zimbabwe’s collapsing economy have kept many distracted from their fears of worst-case scenarios.
Yesterday, as every other day, huge queues formed outside a bakery from morning as people stood in line clutching bundles of cash, hopeful that there would be food to buy. More than forty people were still queueing when, at lunchtime, the bread ran out.