No respite for crisis-hit Zimbabwe

Gift Phiri


ZIMBABWE’S future in 2005 looks bleak, or uncertain at best, as Zanu PF wages a “real war” to win its greatest electoral challenge in the March general election.


Analysts say the ruling party’s fortunes will depend large

ly on how the increasingly unpredictable President Robert Mugabe manages the growing pressure on his 25-year-old government ahead of legislative elections.
Besides rising intra-party political violence, Mugabe has stepped up political repression against his opponents and recently pushed through parliament despotic security laws threatening jail terms for journalists who report falsely. Analysts believe the former guerilla leader could still alter policies that have contributed to Zimbabwe’s slide into recession and put him on a collision course with most of the international community.


“On the facts at hand, the future looks bleak or uncertain at the very best, but that does not mean that hell is unavoidable,” political analyst Emmanuel Magade said. “Politics is not a mathematical equation, and it’s still possible that Mugabe could realise that his current strategy is not a winning strategy,” he told the Zimbabwe Independent.


To begin with, a raft of repressive legislation has been passed that would be the envy of ruling parties elsewhere which are seeking re-election. The Public Order and Security Act, passed in January 2002, and amended late last year, gives officials the power to ban political rallies. It has also criminalised statements deemed to undermine the authority of the president, insult him or spark feelings of hostility towards him, thereby sounding the death knell for the average opposition stump speech. Already three people have been arrested in the past two months for “bad mouthing” Mugabe, even where the remarks would be considered fair comment.


The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, passed in March 2002, and also amended recently, has restricted the activities of the private press by requiring journalists to obtain accreditation from a government-appointed Media and Information Commission. “Local journalists risk criminal charges if they try to speak the truth,” says an Internet-based activist group, Sokwanele, which means “enough”. “Besides, where would they publish? Most dissenting media voices have long been shut down.”


In addition, a Non-Governmental Organisations Bill passed by parliament last month bans foreign human rights groups from working in Zimbabwe. It also prohibits local NGOs dealing with human rights and issues of good governance from receiving foreign funding.


As money to finance these organisations’ activities is scarce in Zimbabwe itself, the Bill could force many local NGOs to close their doors — including several that deal with voter education. This prompted the European Union to note in a statement issued on December 22 that the NGO Act, which still awaits Mugabe’s signature, “could have a significant negative impact on the forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe”.


The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) Bill, also passed last month, empowers the newly created commission to decide which organisations should be allowed to raise awareness amongst voters. The establishment of the ZEC was apparently intended to bring Zimbabwe into conformity with a set of electoral guidelines adopted in August 2004 by the Southern African Development Community (Sadc).


Among other things, these stipulate that impartial institutions should supervise polls, that all parties should have access to public media and that campaigns should be free of political harassment. In November, the government-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH) refused to accept adverts from the opposition MDC despite guarantees of payment. The ZBH also routinely condemns the opposition. The New York-based Human Rights Watch and others point out that the way in which ZEC commissioners are appointed still gives government too much say over who sits on the body.


“They (Zanu PF party) have put everything in place to win the elections,” says Lovemore Madhuku, head of the National Constitutional Assembly, a body which lobbies for constitutional reform in Zimbabwe.


The MDC has threatened to boycott the March election if government fails to fully comply with the Sadc electoral guidelines and principles. Party officials say a final decision on whether to contest the poll will be taken later this month.
But “there is more to gain by not participating and mounting a campaign to build a mass movement”, observes Madhuku.


Brian Raftopoulos, one of Zimbabwe’s leading political analysts, says Mugabe is facing such massive domestic, regional and international opposition that he would not be able to get away with a violent election campaign or cheating.
“It would be suicidal,” he said. “But I believe that Mugabe can, in his own interest, in the interest of his party and in the interest of Zimbabwe, stop listening to the hawkish advice of young opportunists and intellectual mercenaries in his court.”


The 14-nation Sadc has publicly backed Mugabe’s leadership but analysts say there is tough talking behind the scenes to try to persuade him to comply with regional and international norms.
Zimbabwe’s economy has been crippled by a shortage of fuel and foreign exchange, while a drop in agricultural output is threatening a food shortfall. Inflation is at 149,3%, while interest rates are above 100%. Without international donor support, Mugabe has little chance of resolving the country’s economic problems, analysts say.


The European Union and the United States have slapped Mugabe and his cronies with targeted sanctions while the Commonwealth, a grouping of mostly former British colonies, has suspended Zimbabwe from the club.


Mugabe, who will be 81 next month, launched his bid for his ruling Zanu PF’s re-election last year with a fiery declaration that the legislative vote would be an “anti-Blair election”. Mugabe said his ruling party would wage a “real war” against his political foes in the main opposition MDC.
His government has proposed amendments banning independent observers, forbidding private voter education and denying voting rights to millions of Zimbabweans abroad. The government has also bulldozed a security Bill through parliament, which critics say contains sweeping powers to suppress the opposition ahead of the poll.


But the opposition MDC still poses the strongest challenge to Mugabe’s Zanu PF since it came to power when the former Rhodesia gained independence from Britain in 1980.


Analysts said Zimbabweans could only secure their future by braving political violence and throwing out Zanu PF in the March election.
“We enter the year 2005, a year which could change the political and economic fortunes of this beautiful country if the people are courageous in their choice of leadership,” Magade said.