The announcement by opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai that he will not contest the second round of the presidential election scheduled for 27 June 2008 comes amid increasing violence in urban areas of Zimbabwe - and signals of concern among Robert Mugabe’s erstwhile African allies at events in the country.
Jabu Shoko is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.
This article was first published by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) as part of its Zimbabwe Crisis Reports series
The leader of the main faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) made the announcement on 22 June, as the Harare suburb of Mbare witnessed a surge in violence when members of pro-regime youth groups went on the rampage and attacked local residents. Tsvangirai - who sought refuge at the Dutch embassy in the capital Harare - explained that he did not want voters to risk their lives in his run-off against the incumbent president. He said that Zimbabwe was facing a war, not an election, and that "we will not be part of that war".
The MDC says more than eighty of its supporters have been killed by militias of the ruling Zanu (PF) party, as the regime uses intimidation to recoup the electoral reverses it suffered in the first round of the presidential polls on 29 March. On that occasion, Zanu (PF) was eventually forced to concede that Tsvangirai had won the largest number of votes (though, the official results claimed, not enough to give him outright victory - thus necessitating a second round of voting).
Tsvangirai’s decision to withdraw from the race followed a raid by police on Harvest House, the MDC’s headquarters in Harare. The police detained up to sixty people, mostly women and children who had found sanctuary there after coming under attack in their rural homes.
A day after Tsvangirai’s declaration, tensions persisted. The dormitory town of Chitungwiza, thirty kilometres south of Harare, was tense on 23 June. "We would have expected the violence to end immediately after Tsvangirai’s move, but the opposite is happening", said local resident Abel Marufu. "I think Mugabe is just sneering at the world and telling it whatever it thinks about him will not sway him from his chosen path."
Among openDemocracy’s many articles on Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe:
Bev Clark, "Mass evictions in Zimbabwe" (13 June 2005)
Netsai Mushonga, "Two nights in Harare’s police cells" (5 December 2005)
Andrew Meldrum, "Zimbabwe between past and future" (23 June 2006)
Conor O’Loughlin, "Zimbabwean travails" (13 September 2006)
Wilf Mbanga, "Happy birthday, Robert Mugabe" (21 February 2007)
Stephen Chan, "Farewell, Robert Mugabe" (20 March 2007)
Michael Holman, "Dizzy worms in Zimbabwe" (13 September 2007)
The Zimbabwean, "Zimbabwe votes - and waits" (31 March 2008)
Wilf Mbanga, "Zimbabwe’s unfolding drama" (7 April 2008)
Roger Southall, "South Africa and Zimbabwe: the end of ‘quiet diplomacy’?" (29 April 2008)
openDemocracy, ""Zimbabwe’s elections: an African appeal" (20 June 2008)
The one-man election
The violence began in April and mainly occurred in rural areas, where Zanu (PF) had performed unexpectedly poorly in the concurrent parliamentary and presidential elections on 29 March. The aim of the violence seemed to be to disable the capacity of MDC activists to organise on the ground, and to intimidate ordinary voters who might be considering opting for Tsvangirai.
By the second week of June, however, the focus of violence was shifting to the towns. Groups of Mugabe supporters, some armed with knobkerries and machetes - weapons banned by the police in the run-up to the elections - started to appear in central business districts, townships and even in the usually quiet wealthy suburbs. Youth militia wearing Zanu (PF) insignia set up impromptu roadblocks on the outskirts of towns and cities (including Harare), where they randomly stop vehicles, order the passengers out and make them chant slogans.
The MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa says that "not knowing the slogan can earn you a beating or your dear life." In Zimbabwe’s towns, reported Chamisa, the two weeks after 9 June in particular has seen a marked increase in murders, abductions, kidnapping, intimidation and assaults on people perceived to be sympathetic to the opposition.
Eldred Masunungure, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe, told the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR): "Even if the violence stops today, the damage has already been done. Fear is now deeply entrenched in people’s minds.... You can’t vote at gunpoint and be expected to make a rational decision."
But the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission insists the election will go ahead anyway, with Mugabe as the sole candidate. The president’s spokesman George Charamba said on 23 June that Mugabe was determined to stand and that the election commission would legitimise the outcome.
African leaders, concerned at the increasing instability in Zimbabwe, have issued unprecedented statements criticising Mugabe’s tactics.
However, analysts say this condemnation, even strongly-worded remarks from formerly unwavering allies Tanzania and Angola, will do little to sway the embattled Zimbabwean leader at this stage.
"In fact, the condemnations egg Mugabe on", argues political analyst Ernest Mudzengi, director of the National Constitutional Assembly, a non-government group calling for constitutional change. Mudzengi explains that postponing the election and accepting the kind of negotiated settlement proposed by South African president Thabo Mbeki would, for Mugabe, mean conceding that he was defeated by Tsvangirai in the first round.
"The man is arrogant and if he were to postpone the elections, he would have exposed himself. The fact of the matter is that he thrives on elections which are not free and fair, as is the case now", said Mudzengi.
A circle of pressure
Gorden Moyo, a political analyst and executive director of the Bulawayo Agenda group, agreed that the president had gone beyond the point where he would listen to his critics. "Mugabe is now politically deaf and politically blind. He will not listen to all these voices. He has invested too much in violence", says Moyo.
At the same time, Moyo welcomed the new, more vocal stance taken by southern African leaders - with the exception of Mbeki, who has not spoken out against Mugabe. In his words: "They are now flexing their muscles. It is a diplomatic coup for the sub-region. The sub-region, especially SADC [the Southern African Development Community], has been a problem as it has been giving Mugabe a home. It is unfortunate that South African president Mbeki is not doing the same."
Morgan Tsvangirai met Thabo Mbeki and a visiting United Nations special envoy a few days before his decision to withdraw from the election. According to sources present, he told them both that he had categorical proof that Mugabe was behind the violence, including the murder of MDC activists, and furnished the South African leader with files chronicling the attacks.
The position of African states could be vital in resolving the current impasse. The United Nations Security Council agreed a statement on 23 June condemning the violence. But the predicament of Zimbabwe’s people remains unrelieved.