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Robert Mugabe, the increasingly belligerent and unstable 84-year-old Zimbabwean president, has a warning for those who might vote for Morgan Tsvangirai in next week’s presidential runoff: “We fought for this country, and a lot of blood was shed,” he told the state-controlled Herald newspaper here. “We are not going to give up our country because of a mere X. How can a ballpoint [pen] fight with a gun?”
Still, Zimbabwe’s dictator is using every means at his disposal to assure that all the Xs go by his name. The surge of violence and voter intimidation in urban and rural areas is clearly being orchestrated by Mugabe’s army. Torture camps, where people are “educated” on how to vote, are widely reported.
Yet many informed observers believe that Mugabe’s thugs have not done enough to ensure victory on June 27. Mr. Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was the projected winner of a March 29 presidential election, but was denied the number of votes needed for an outright victory by ballot rigging.
The Mugabe regime has–incredibly–banned aid agencies from distributing aid and food. According to the United Nations, this puts at least two million Zimbabweans at greater risk of starvation, homelessness and disease.
The MDC might bring desperately needed change, as conditions in Zimbabwe are appalling. Inflation is running at a staggering three million percent annualized. Price controls mean there is little food in the shops, as input costs are far higher than possible sales revenues, although if you’re paying with foreign currency food is available. Staple food items are distributed as a political weapon, and there is little fuel to transport produce privately.
Yet with starvation already killing untold numbers, the Mugabe regime has–incredibly–banned aid agencies from distributing aid and food. According to the United Nations, this puts at least two million Zimbabweans at greater risk of starvation, homelessness and disease.
According to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, “In recent weeks, under Robert Mugabe’s increasingly desperate and criminal regime, Zimbabwe has seen 53 killings, 2,000 beatings and the displacement of 30,000 people and the arrests of opposition leaders.” But according to residents here–such as Arthur Banda, 33, a trained electrician who’s not had a salaried job in 30 months and trades his services for food–this is an underestimate. He says the death toll in recent weeks is well over 100, and climbing: “In the rural areas people just disappear.”
When I visited here in 2005, most people thought Mugabe would be dead or at least out of power by now; locals speculated that a coup might be staged by Gen. Vitalis Zvinavashe, who was trained by North Korea’s fifth brigade and oversaw much of the Matabele slaughter in the 1980s. Yet few talk of a coup today.
Conspiracy theories abound. Mr. Banda echoes some within the MDC when he claims that “Mugabe is no longer in charge.” A group of generals may be controlling the violence with the aim of keeping him in power as their puppet. Says Mr. Banda: “Having killed 20,000 in Matabeleland in the 1980s, stolen farms in Zimbabwe, and diamonds in Congo [during a war Mugabe supported at significant cost to Zimbabweans], as well as the thousands displaced, hundreds raped and scores killed in the recent past, these generals fear losing control and facing charges of crimes against humanity.”
Others say the generals want Mugabe as a puppet to placate neighboring governments. These governments still admire him as his country’s first postcolonial leader, but have started to lose patience. Botswana and Zambia even made a rare complaint last week about the bogus treason charge thrown at Tendai Biti, the deputy leader of the MDC.
The U.N. has an envoy in Zimbabwe to demand a free and fair election, but locals want him to call for a U.N. peacekeeping force to be sent. Such a move will never happen unless supported by at least one Southern African country. And that will not happen while Mugabe remains president.
Meanwhile, Mr. Tsvangirai has been arrested several times in the past week, Mr. Biti is in jail, and their staff cannot campaign properly. The wounds–busted faces, broken legs and arms, burns from cigarettes and petrol, among many others–to the brave MDC supporters attempting to campaign are sickening to see. Few observers will be able to monitor the election–none from the European Union, the U.S. or any other nations likely to challenge the Mugabe regime. Independent journalists are generally harassed, beaten up or thrown out of the country.
The MDC has behaved admirably in the face of awful provocation, and party officials still cling to the hope that they can win the election. I see no such future. The MDC may win the June 27 vote, but they will not take power. Military intervention is required for that to happen. For while the U.S. and the UK make the right noises–and think creatively about sanctions against the regime–neither they nor the U.N. can do anything substantive without local African support.
South Africa has proven craven in this regard–President Thabo Mbeki made an unscheduled visit yesterday, but no one expects any action. The only hope lies with Botswana and Zambia, whose leaders have at least some backbone. They need to act and act soon, because Mugabe’s generals will not budge unless forced. As Mugabe told the Herald newspaper recently, he would rather “die fighting” than be “ruled by an MDC government that is keen to sell the country’s birthright.”
It is time neighboring nations supported U.N. peacekeeping action in Zimbabwe. If they don’t, the U.S. and the UK should reassess future investment, aid and trade to the entire region.
Roger Bate is resident fellow at AEI.
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