Zimbabwe: Rumors of Exile

Julius Dawu, World Press Review correspondent, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Jan. 22, 2002

Robert Mugabe
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has sworn never to go into exile (Photo: AFP).
An article published in Harare’s centrist Sunday Mirror on Jan. 12 claiming that talks were underway to arrange for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to go into exile has unleashed what one newspaper has called “an avalanche of speculation” in the country’s press.

Mugabe, 78, was quick to deny the reports. On Jan. 14, during a visit to Zambia, he unequivocally told reporters, “I am not retiring. I will never, never go into exile.” Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), denied the rumors with equal vehemence. Tsvangirai said he had met with Col. Lionel Dyke, the alleged emissary of Speaker of the Parliament Emmerson Mnangagwa and Gen. Vitalis Zvinavashe, the commander of the Zimbabwean armed forces, but had rejected any suggestion of a transitional, power-sharing government divided between the MDC and the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). “We will never be party to any political arrangement that seems to sanitize Mugabe’s violent illegitimacy, and that includes Mugabe’s retirement plans,” Tsvangirai told reporters from Harare’s independent Daily News on Jan. 15.

Tsvangirai’s version of events kept the story alive, as local journalists speculated that Mugabe might be persuaded to go under a plan hatched by the British and South African governments with the support of senior ZANU-PF and MDC officials.

And though Zvinavashe denied any involvement in the plot, by press time there were early signs that the ZANU-PF may be splintering under stress. On Jan. 16, Col. Dyke admitted that he had met with the MDC leader “to sound him out on a peaceful transition of government,” but that he had done so on his own initiative. At a rare press conference the same day, Zvinavashe told reporters, “First we must admit there is a crisis [in Zimbabwe]. Everyone can see that,” he told reporters. “So we must do something. In my view, it is not right to keep quiet and let nature take its course.”

Readers of the Jan. 19 edition of Bulawayo’s government-owned weekly, the Sunday News, found an editorial headlined, “Tsvangirai’s Bizarre Plot.” The Sunday News' editors dismissed the rumors as “a tired story that is being recycled by British intelligence and local political and media puppets to confuse Zimbabweans and split ZANU-PF into factions. Today, the writing is on the wall,” the editors continued. “MDC leaders and their British masters have failed to remove ZANU-PF from power through the ballot box and are now resorting to unconstitutional treachery.”

The Sunday News editorial adhered to gist of the government’s official responses. On Jan. 13, ZANU-PF Secretary for Information Nathan Shamuyarira told government-owned radio stations that the rumors were just a “wicked, malicious, and mischievous attempt by the British” to help the opposition to usurp power. And whereas the Sunday News called the rumors “treachery,” Minister of Information Jonathan Moyo, in a statement released two days before the Sunday News editorial, had used the word “treason.”

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s independent press, seemingly starved for any sign of change, has greeted the rumors with hope. Harare’s Financial Gazette, which is critical of Mugabe’s government, on Jan. 16 argued that “if there is a possibility that ZANU-PF and the MDC can put aside their bitter differences for the good of the nation, and we believe there is such a possibility, then this option should be explored fully, whatever form it takes. The longer Zimbabwe is allowed to bleed, the more profound will be the inevitable fallout for the country itself and its neighbors in the region.”

The Daily Mirror is apparently quite confident in the accuracy of their scoop. In a Jan. 14 editorial headlined, ”A peaceful transition for Zimbabwe,” the paper’s editors brushed aside the government’s denials. “The crucial issue now is that the transition plan from Mugabe to the next president, who ever that will be, is now out in the open… and it is a peaceful plan.”

The next day, the editors of the Daily News suggested that if ZANU-PF had not yet discussed an exit plan for Mugabe, they should do so now. “There are ZANU-PF politicians who will not come out and say it in the open, because it would be politically incorrect to do so,” the Daily News asserted. “But they…are secretly convinced he ought to step down—certainly before [the end of his new term, in] 2006.” The paper’s editors urged these ZANU-PF officials to come forward. “There would be nothing shameful in ZANU-PF admitting that, at some level and at some point, an exit plan was discussed for Mugabe. The man is mortal and has not enjoyed the best health recently.”

Coincidently, Dyke admitted he had met with Tsvingarai the next day.

But if there are rifts opening within the ZANU-PF, the government press is certainly not reporting them. “The British government and the opposition MDC suffered further humiliation as their plans to build pressure against the Zimbabwe government collapsed around them,” the Zimbabwean government’s flagship daily Herald crowed in a Jan. 15 editorial. “First, it was the false reporting aimed at causing alarm and despondency…over President Mugabe’s reported exit and banishment into exile, which turned out to be fabricated…. There is actually no basis for the president to stand down at this juncture, [since] the majority of Zimbabwean voters unanimously elected him to lead the country for the next six years, only 10 months ago.”

The following day, the Zimbabwe High Court called the “unanimity” of the 2000 Zimbabwean parliamentary elections into question, nullifying the returns from two constituencies won by the ZANU-PF because the party had used violence and intimidation to influence the results.

In the Jan. 12 edition of Johannesburg’s conservative Sunday Times columnist Mathatha Tsedu wrote that just as Zimbabweans freed themselves from the clutches of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, they must now free themselves from Mugabe’s dictatorship. “There is an undeniable reversal of democracy occurring in Zimbabwe…. And diplomatic niceties reach a point of tacit support of the awful when there is a failure to speak in defense of democracy,” Tsedu argued. “While Zimbabweans will continue to beat the drum and make jokes to survive the daily grind… there is need for [South African] President Thabo Mbeki to say that repression is wrong, even if Mugabe… will not listen.”

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