Mugabe's Waterloo

President Mugabe delivers a speech during a rally on March 18 in Gweru, 166 miles south of Harare. (Photo: Desmond Kwande / AFP-Getty Images)

As Zimbabweans head for the make or break parliamentary and presidential elections on March 29, 2008, pain and poverty precede their votes in the inflation-ravaged country that has been in shut down mode for the past eight years.

President Bush recently described President Robert Mugabe as a "discredited dictator" presiding over food shortages, staggering inflation, and harsh repression, but that description does not seem to worry Mugabe ahead of the crucial polls.

On top of the election wish list is a permanent change in the country's economic and political fortunes, but Mugabe is not ready to leave office yet. In fact, he has vowed not to accept a win by the opposition parties, chiefly the Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.). A joke is told that a foreign journalist once asked the aging leader when he will bid the Zimbabwean people goodbye. Mugabe, who turned 84 last month, wittingly responded, "Where are they going."

Zimbabwe desperately needs to change course fairly soon given its world record-breaking collapse. Inflation is officially over 100,000 percent but the International Monetary Fund last year predicted that inflation was at 150,000 percent. Almost all numbers linked to Zimbabwe are mind numbing. Unemployment is at 80 percent, life expectancy is at 34 for women and 37 for men, 3,500 people die of H.I.V./AIDS-related illnesses each week, 4 million more have fled the economic ruin in their country and the highest currency has a face value of $10 million (officially worth US$333).

If the gift of the garb and being bookish made Mugabe the voters' idol at independence, 28 years of his charm has proved the limit. The post-2000 Mugabe years have exposed the personal veneer of an old man who rules more by rigging than by decree.

Mugabe today faces a changed political landscape in Zimbabwe, thanks largely to his ruinous policies that have impoverished Zimbabweans and isolated the country internationally. Analysts are convinced that had the political playing field been equal Mugabe would be facing his Waterloo. But, again like the proverbial cat, Mugabe has nine political lives. He escaped the first show of doubt in his leadership in 2000 when the new official opposition party, M.D.C., gave ZANU-PF a run for their votes.

Successively, the ruling party's winning margins have been thinning, so have been the number of its supporters. But this has not shocked Mugabe into delivering the economic and political change craved by his countrymen. As if to the contrary, challenges to Mugabe's rule have raised the level of vitriol and violence in his voice, as he accuses political opponents of being Western puppets seeking an illegal regime change.

In February 2000, Zimbabweans handed Mugabe his first shock in the constitutional referendum for increased powers to the president, permitting the government to confiscate without compensation white-owned land for the purpose of redistribution to black farmers, and to give government officials immunity from prosecution. The surprise result was that 54 percent of the electorate voted to reject the draft constitution while 46 percent voted in favor. The turnout for the referendum was 25 percent. Then in 2002, Mugabe won the presidential elections with 56 percent of the vote but not without howls of electoral theft.

In the upcoming March 29 elections, which for the first time are four elections in one, Mugabe is facing three other contenders to the presidency. The outright winner should garner 51 percent of the total votes cast. Former trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai of one of the two factions of the M.D.C. is contesting again after losing by a few votes to Mugabe in the 2002 polls. Langton Towungana, an independent, has also registered as a presidential candidate. Chemist and former finance minister Simba Makoni delivered a shocker when he announced that he was contesting the presidency. To illustrate his shock and apparent powerlessness, Mugabe has thrown obscenities at Makoni and other members of ZANU-PF who have crossed the floor.

"What has happened now is absolutely disgraceful. I didn't think that Makoni, after all his experience, would behave like this," Mugabe said in an interview broadcast on state television. "I compared him to a prostitute. A prostitute could have done better than Makoni, because she has clients. Don't you think so?" he added.

Looking all calm and relaxed during an hour-long interview, Mugabe stopped short of saying that some of his party members were cowards who could not make their views known within the confines of the party but chose to take the easy route of running as independents. Mugabe cited Makoni and former spin-doctor Jonathan Moyo as some of the "rebels" who have defied the party.

Despite unfathomable inflation and the worst crisis ravaging Zimbabwe, Mugabe is still in power when in a normal situation this would be enough to have him overthrown if not worse. Surprisingly, Mugabe still has loads of energy to point fingers at his nemeses, Britain and the United States, for all the economic and political problems dogging Zimbabwe.

Political analysts say Mugabe might well have victory in the bag given his party's ability to marshal both state and donor resources for the campaign as evidenced by the president's recent donation of more than 300 buses as well as trucks, agricultural equipment, and fuel to the party faithful. No doubt, the government-owned Sunday Mail (March 9) claimed that on March 29, the presidential candidate who will be seen or perceived by the majority of the people to have the best plan for a land-based economic revival will win the elections. The weekly newspaper said the elections were about land: "It will not be about governance, the constitution, or other extraneous issues. It will be about land, for land is the economy. This is one issue that has been drawing crowds to President Mugabe's rallies. He is seen and understood to be the defender of the land reclamation and redistribution program that he has led over the past seven years."

Despite using the controversial land redistribution program as its draw card, Mugabe's ruling party could be on its last political legs unless it reinvents itself in the forthcoming elections. Deep divisions in the party's ranks and isolated desertions by senior members are probably Mugabe's biggest nightmare. Latest to jump ship is the former intelligence supreme in the defunct Patriotic Front Zimbabwe African People's Union (PF-ZAPU) and former minister of home affairs, Dumiso Dabengwa. Dabengwa, a veteran of the armed struggle and member of the Politburo, ZANU-PF's highest decision-making body, quit to join renegade Makoni citing the need for leadership rather than regime change. As usual, Mugabe ranted and cursed, describing Dabengwa's departure as the "greatest betrayal" of the liberation struggle.

While others abandon Mugabe, there are still those who swear their undying allegiance, such as the commissioner of prisons. Retired Maj.-Gen. Paradzayi Zimondi was recently quoted saying, "If the opposition wins the election, I will be the first one to resign from my job and go back to defend my piece of land. I will not let it go…We are going to the elections and you should vote for President Mugabe." Major-General Zimondi's sentiments have also been shared by the police commissioner, Augustine Chihuri, and army Gen. Constantine Chiwenga.

The privately owned Financial Gazette (March 7) commented that ever since the emergence of a real challenge to the ruling party there has been a disturbing phenomenon of senior army chiefs openly declaring their allegiance to the incumbent and not to the process of holding democratic elections as enshrined in the country's constitution.

In January 2002, retired army chief Vitalis Zvinavashe—then in charge of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces—publicly said he would not recognize a president who didn't have credible liberation credentials. This does not bode well for free and fair elections, which the army, police, and entire civil service participate in.

Zimbabweans hope to make a change in their political fortunes. It remains to be seen whether Mugabe will this time say goodbye and mean it or find another reason to celebrate his 89th birthday at State House.

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