Mugabe's Last Stand

Protestors from the National Constitutional Assembly march in downtown Harare, Feb. 15. The protest was broken up by riot police who said the demonstration was illegal under the new Public Order and Security Act (Photo: AFP).

A memorable cartoon in the Feb. 15 issue of Harare's pro-opposition Daily News showed a desperate Nelson Mandela imploring his successor, Thabo Mbeki, of South Africa to use a loudspeaker to talk to Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. "Why don't you use this?" the caption read.

The cartoon underscored the ineffectiveness of the world's quiet diplomatic pressure on Zimbabwe. President Robert Mugabe has not compromised a whit. Nor has the threat of economic sanctions, including the supposedly "smart sanctions" threatened by the United States had any impact on Harare's policy. Instead, threats have been met with a fierce backlash from the State House.

Mugabe has just about squandered all his post-independence glory as a statesman and liberation hero. The government's rickety political and economic policies that have been propped up by farm invasions, inter-party clashes, violence, repression of opponents, and anti-white rhetoric have eroded the respect Mugabe patiently built after becoming the country's first prime minister in 1980, later becoming president in 1987. A poll conducted by Harare's Mass Opinion Institute, and released on Feb. 20, 2002, found that roughly 20 percent of respondents would vote for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the March elections, while only 11.3 percent said they favored Mugabe. In an indication of the country's paranoia under the Mugabe regime, 59.7 percent said they would prefer not to share their opinions.

International pressure has led to diplomatic shuttles between Harare, Pretoria, and Brussels but little has come of them. Zimbabwe's government continually returns to its mantra: that no country should interfere in Zimbabwe's affairs. This refrain, echoed by the government-owned media, has continued since the European Union and Great Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonizer, dared to mention economic sanctions against Zimbabwe. After weeks of threats and recriminations back and forth, the European Union imposed sanctions on Mugabe and his coterie of supporters on Feb. 18. The United States is expected to follow suit soon.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President: A London policeman removes a pot of glue and a brush in an effort to prevent activists from Reporters sans Frontières from posting fliers decrying President Robert Mugabe's crackdown on Zimbabwe's press. The protest was staged on Feb. 21, Mugabe's birthday, amid mounting outcries over his crackdown on Zimbabwe's opposition (Photo: AFP).

In its Jan. 21 editorial, the Daily News suggested that anything to frighten Mugabe must be tried since the Zimbabwean leader has remained stubborn in the face of threats. "[MDC presidential candidate] Morgan Tsvangirai is not the only Zimbabwean who believes firmly that South Africa could tilt the balance in favor of pluralism in Zimbabwe if their government put maximum pressure on Mugabe to give real democracy a chance," the editors of the Daily News wrote, adding that "the administration of George W. Bush supported the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act [threatening sanctions against Zimbabwe] for the same reason: that it would dissuade Mugabe from pursuing his path to political perdition."

But despite the mounting pressure from abroad, Zimbabwe's government does not seem to be reading the political and economic writing on the wall. Harare's privately owned weekly Financial Gazette believes only the electorate will open the eyes of a blind leadership. In its Feb. 7 editorial, "Beyond March 2002," The Financial Gazette said that because of the focus on the March elections, few Zimbabweans have thought about real life after the elections are finished, and especially how that life might look if Mugabe miraculously returns to power.

"Were Mugabe to win the election, the current doomsday upheaval will be even more traumatic, with Zimbabwe totally isolated by the rest of the world until a fresh ballot that is seen to be free and fair is staged," The Financial Gazettee forecasted. "Thus, hesitant foreign investors, multilateral agencies such as the International Monetary Fund, and the entire Western world would simply leave Zimbabwe to its own fate, just as the world did to anarchic Somalia… Not only that. Some of the punitive sanctions now targeting Mugabe and his top officials, all of them accused of promoting lawlessness which is tormenting the nation, could begin to affect some Zimbabweans."

Not so, said the Jan. 31 edition of Harare's centrist Zimbabwe Mirror. The paper instead took a pro-government line, saying the international community, and especially England, should leave Zimbabwe alone: "With regard to the current election campaign in Zimbabwe, Britain's conduct amounts to gross interference," the paper's editors wrote. "What is required over the current Zimbabwean situation is dialogue, both between ourselves as citizens belonging to different political parties, and between Zimbabwe and the international community."

The government-owned Herald echoed these sentiments in its Feb. 8 editorial. The Herald insisted that gags on the press and opposition political parties are in order: "Zimbabwe, just like any other country, is a sovereign nation. It has laws [that] have to be followed. These cannot be bent just to impress some foreigners. If there were something to hide, why would the government then waste time inviting [foreign election] observers? The invitation to foreign observers has gone a long way toward restoring the confidence of the international community in Zimbabwe's ability to stage an open and democratic election. There is no doubt that Zimbabweans will, as usual, be free to vote for a candidate of their choice."

The editors of Harare's pro-opposition Zimbabwe Independent disagreed: "Meanwhile," they wrote in the paper's Feb. 8 editorial, "Zimbabwe's friends in the United States and the European Union should not hesitate to act against the sponsors of violence. Why," the editors asked, "Should ZANU-PF ministers [that is, ministers from Zimbabwe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Fund party] who daily trample on the rights of those they govern, while alleging that all the country's problems stem from an imperialist plot hatched in London and Washington, continue to educate their children at the best colleges in England and the United States while Zimbabwean parents have to carry the daily burden of making ends meet?"

On Feb. 12, Bulawayo's pro-government Chronicle, said all systems for a free and fair elections were in place and that no foreign nation should be saying otherwise, least of all the United States. "We will hold elections like we have always done, and the results will stand, whether the European Union and Americans approve or not. After all, the Americans have a president who had to be elected through the courts. A president whose deciding vote came from an area where his brother was presiding over," The Chronicle quipped. "Now the United States wants to preach 'free and fair' rubbish to us. We elect our leaders through the ballot box and not chicanery."