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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Zimbabwe: opposition right to cut its losses


Morgan Tsvangirai was right to withdraw from the runoff presidential "election" in Zimbabwe on Sunday. Thousands of his supporters have been kidnapped and tortured by President Robert Mugabe's thugs since the campaign started, and 86 have been murdered already.

Thousands more would probably have suffered the same fate if the election had gone ahead, and it would all have been for nothing. Mugabe was determined not to let the opposition win, regardless of what the voters did. He even said so.

"Only God can remove me," Mugabe has been saying in recent speeches, vowing that he would refuse to give up the gains of the liberation war because of an "x" on a ballot paper.

Mugabe claims that the major opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is part of a plot by the British government, Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler, to reimpose white rule on the country.

Whether this is genuine paranoia or merely low cunning, it lets the 84-year-old president justify the reign of terror he has unleashed against opposition supporters since he lost the first round of the election to Tsvangirai as "a second liberation war." In wars, you can kill people who oppose you, and you are not obliged to count the enemy's votes.

So a lot of opposition party organizers have been killed, and in rural areas thousands of them have been driven from their homes in order to give Mugabe a clear run in the second round of voting. And Mugabe's strategy was clearly going to succeed: Either he would win a majority of the votes because enough MDC supporters had been terrorized into staying home, or else he would win the count later on.

He didn't win the count the first time, in late March, because he was over-confident. He let too many foreign observers in, and he allowed local vote tallies to be posted up at polling stations and didn't realize that opposition activists would photograph them. Whatever the real vote count was, Mugabe's tame Zimbabwe Election Commission was unable to massage the outcome enough to give him a first-round victory: Most of the local voting totals were too well documented.

After a month's delay, the ZEC released results showing Tsvangirai with about 48 percent of the vote to Mugabe's 43 percent. That was enough to force a second round of voting, since a candidate had to get more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round to avoid a runoff.

It was the best that the ZEC could do for Mugabe, but it was a huge humiliation for the liberation war hero who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. His advisers should have seen it coming, however: Mugabe has misgoverned Zimbabwe so badly that this once-prosperous country now has 2 million percent inflation.

One quarter of the population have fled to South Africa to find work and support their families. Many more at home would be starving without the remittances from South Africa, because foreign food aid only gets through to supporters of Mugabe's Zanu-PF party. And public health has been neglected so badly that Zimbabweans now die, on average, at a younger age than any other nationality in the world.

Mugabe may not even know these statistics, but armed forces chief Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, now the real power behind the throne, certainly knows them, and so do other regime members. They just don't care. If they lose power, they lose everything, for almost all their wealth was acquired illegally, and they have killed too many people.

In the past week, there have been reports of senior military and political figures showing up at torture sessions of MDC militants who were subsequently released. The message was clear: We do not fear prosecution for this, because we will never relinquish power.

So Tsvangirai had to decide how many more lives he wanted to sacrifice in order to force Mugabe to steal the election openly. But how would that discredit Mugabe any more than the crimes he is committing right now? And what good does it do to "discredit" him?

Mugabe is a scoundrel and a tyrant, and the people who run his government and his army are brazen thieves, but there will be no effective intervention in Zimbabwe from outside. The only African leader who has enough clout to do that is South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, but he will never act against his old friend Robert Mugabe.

Other African leaders will cluck ineffectually, but nothing will be done. Zimbabweans are on their own, as they always really were.

Tsvangirai and a majority of the MDC have belatedly realized that there is no point in waiting for justice to prevail — but they have probably not yet thought beyond that. Basildon Peta, the head of the Zimbabwean Union of Journalists, certainly has. This is what he wrote after Tsvangirai announced his decision.

"I hope it won't be another long round of Thabo Mbeki's timid mediation while Zimbabwe continues burning. The MDC must now do what it should do to rid Zimbabwe of this shameless criminal. The opposition party knows what that is, though I can't print it here."

Well, I can. It is revolution in the streets.

Gwynne Dyer's latest book, "After Iraq," is published by Yale University Press.


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