This was a BBC correspondent’s prescient characterisation of President Robert Mugabe’s dilatory antics just two days after the March 29, 2008 general elections were concluded in Zimbabwe.
Early returns suggested that Mugabe had been voted out (“massacred,” as a jubilant spokesperson for the opposition MDC said) after 28 years in office, and that his ruling ZANU-PF had lost its parliamentary majority for the time since Zimbabwe won independence in 1980.
Zimbabweans and all those who had followed the country’s precipitous decline on virtually every front could smell change in the air. With the man who wrought this disastrous regression gone, there would be no swift return to the relative prosperity that Zimbabwe once enjoyed—the food self-sufficiency, a booming export market for tobacco, coffee, fruit, flowers, solid minerals, and the huge revenues from tourism.
There would be no swift return to well-stocked grocery shelves, no immediate relief for millions ready and willing to work but unable to find any meaningful jobs. The hundreds of thousands who had flocked into neighbouring South Africa through perilous routes might hurry back to friendlier climes, but to hardly any other relief. With some luck, consumers will not have to trundle a truckload of Zim dollars to the shop to buy a family-size loaf of bread.
Mugabe’s exit would however arrest the drift and decay, and create a climate in which the task of rebuilding could begin in earnest.
But instead of departing, Mugabe launched a coup in slow motion.
The electoral commission released the results of the parliamentary elections in tantalising driblets — calibrated to make the opposition feel that power was within its grasp and at the same time make the government feel that its viability was under no serious threat. After several days, it seemed as if a stalemate was in the making, with neither the MDC and ZANU-PF coasting to victory.
Relieved that the rout that had been widely forecast was unlikely to materialise, Mugabe unleashed the awesome powers of incumbency. He warned darkly that proclamation of victory by the opposition would be regarded as an attempt to stage a coup and visited as such. As the stalemate dragged on, Mugabe let it be known that, contrary to public speculation, he was not averse to running against MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai if no clear winner emerged in the presidential election.
By the time it was officially announced that the MDC had indeed wrested parliamentary majority from ZANU-PF, attention had shifted, not to the presidential election whose outcome was being awaited, but to a likely a run-off between Tsvangirai and Mugabe.
At this writing, the results of the presidential election had not been formally announced. The working assumption is that the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai won a majority of the votes but did not score enough to avert a second ballot. Under Zimbabwe’s electoral law, a run-off should be held within three weeks.
Given the strange trajectory of the general elections, the question must be asked: Within three weeks of what? If it is within three weeks of the first poll, then it is past due. If it is within three weeks of declaring the official results, Mugabe can take his time and delay the results for as long as possible. Having recovered his balance, he can then deploy the powers of incumbency to ensure an emphatic victory in the run-off.
Nor is it inconceivable that the results may never be proclaimed. There is a precedent for it.
I have in mind the June 12, 1993 presidential elections. The military government of General Ibrahim Babangida launched against it a coup that dragged on in all its murder and melodrama and absurdity for two months until he was caught in his own snare and dragged off the scene in ignominy.
It is now clear that Mugabe is not prepared to vacate office. It is also clear that, having driven Zimbabwe to the edge of ruin, he can offer only more of the same – blood, agony, despair and tears, in pursuit of no nobler goal or vision than self perpetuation.
How can he as a Christian, a person of faith who almost became an ordained priest – how can he reconcile himself to the depredations and privations that his own policies have brought upon the people? Has he become so isolated that he cannot hear them cry? Is he inured to their pain?
Does it not bother him that his compatriots now feel obliged to wage a chimurenga (Shona for “struggle”) against the very man who had led their historic chimurenga against colonial and settler rule? Does he not feel diminished that he is now more loathed and detested in the public consciousness than Ian Smith, the last white minority ruler of what was then Rhodesia?
As the brazen assault on the popular will in Zimbabwe unfolds, African voices have been tepid at best. The Africa Union showed up briefly in Harare during a meeting with Mugabe, then went missing in action. The African Peer Review Mechanism, the vehicle through which African leaders are supposed to b e able to tell each other unpleasant truths and demand redress went into abeyance.
Africa’s pre-eminent diplomat and peacemaker, Kofi Annan, most recently secretary-general of the United Nations, was stuck in Kenya, trying to broker a solution to another election stalemate that had resulted in slaughter and displacement on a scale almost beyond belief.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, speaking ahead of last weekend’s summit of the Southern Africa Development Community member-states, said the debacle is the Zimbabwean way of handling elections and that the authorities should be given time to announce the results. Not much is to be expected, then from the summit. Malam Musa Yar’Adua knows his own dubious path to power too well to speak out.
Nelson Mandela is in the twilight of his remarkable life. He may be working behind the scenes and the headlines. Even so, he is known for his loyalty to his friends, among whom he counts Mugabe. Those expecting him to denounce Mugabe are likely to be disappointed. That is not the Madiba style.
Twelve years ago, General Olusegun Obasanjo would have been the statesman for these times.
He held no formal office; yet his voice was respected all over the world. His counsel was sought far and wide. He talked with a moral authority that commanded attention. He spoke truth and wisdom to power. His every utterance was backed by the force of personal example.
Today, he is hobbled, his influence severely diminished at home and abroad on account of a record of performance that belied his vaunted commitment to democracy and the rule of law during his eight years as president. Each passing day brings new startling allegations of sleaze against his administration and even members of his family.
Nor has the so-called international community proved an honest broker. Zimbabwe’s former colonial suzerain, the United Kingdom, says it has set aside a billion pounds to kick start rebuilding once Mugabe vacates power.
If the UK and the United States had made that kind of money available to help Mugabe buy white-owned farms for redistribution to landless Zimbabweans in keeping with the Lancaster House protocols, Mugabe would not have embarked on the measures that have brought his country to grief. Besides, the UK’s latest promise only strengthens Mugabe’s hands in portraying his opponents as agents of British imperialism.
Nearly three weeks after the election, the coup continues apace in slow motion. In the latest installment, Mugabe is claiming that the parliamentary poll was rigged in favour of the MDC and is demanding a recount in some 23 districts. If and when the result of the presidential election is released, Mugabe will probably embark on a new stunt.
In this unfolding tragedy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu stands out almost alone as an honest broker, committed not to expediency and opportunist compromise, but to justice and upholding the sovereign will of the people. Those who truly wish Zimbabwe well and do not want it to go the way of Kenya must heed his voice.
- This piece was first published in this newspaper on April 15, 2008. It will be the point of departure for next week’s column
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