A collective and audible sigh of relief spread through Zimbabwe on Sunday evening, June 22, as word got around that Morgan Tsvangirai had pulled out of the presidential run-off election. There were, to be sure, also some voices of dismay and anger that we would now be deprived of the opportunity of speaking with our ballots and finishing the task of liberation. Both responses were based on false assumptions – first that the violence could end if there were no contested election and second that voting in a re-run would mean a ZANU PF exit.
Tsvangirai’s reasons for withdrawing were clearly stated and unassailable – under the current circumstances of torture, burning of homes, rape, systematic destruction of MDC structures, killings and arrests, there could be no valid election. What made it possible for him to withdraw at all was the shift in position by the majority of SADC governments.
The MDC and most Zimbabweans believe that Tsvangirai won the first round. He won the contest in spite of it being seriously skewed against him at every stage of the process -from the bias of the Zimbabwe Election Commission, to voter registration, to delimitation of constituencies, to placement of polling stations, to counting and announcement of results. The charade of a run-off has been played out in an increasingly surreal atmosphere, not according to the law, not for democracy or the Zimbabwean people, but for the benefit of reluctant regional leaders who insisted that the MDC accept the deceitful maneuverings of a regime which had lost the support of the people but nevertheless maintained control of the levers of power.
Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF had ceased to enjoy legitimacy to rule Zimbabwe by April 1. The first election was held on March 29, and by the end of March 30 at the latest, all results should have been announced. Instead, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, evidently directed by ZANU PF, prevaricated and delayed and began a lengthy tragi-farce, pretending that they were re-counting, validating, and engaged in every other process they could devise to avoid admitting that they had been defeated at the polls, both in parliamentary and in presidential voting. They ignored all relevant provisions of the Electoral Act, and even proceeded to re-write the Act by statutory instrument. This gave them time to delay any run-off of the presidential vote until they could put in place their evil plan to terrorise the population into submission. Mugabe brazenly re-called the cabinet which was dissolved before the election; and without even a façade of legality, they resumed their positions, and continued to receive their salaries and perks of office in spite of the fact that many had themselves been defeated by the electorate.
Since March, Zimbabwe has had no Parliament, no local government councils, no legitimate executive, and ZANU PF has ruled by decree in response to the orders of the JOC – acronym for the military junta which now controls the nation, along with Mr. Mugabe and Reserve Bank Governor Mr. Gono, who is needed to print money. SADC governments allowed the charade to continue, talked to and dealt with the illegitimate government as if nothing was wrong. Although it is now painfully clear why the delay was orchestrated, it is not so clear why regional presidents supported it.
Through the past two months, the war, which Mugabe now threatens if he is defeated at the polls, has already been raging. The tactics used to terrorise opposition supporters are those, which were used during the liberation war. Militia bases recreate the guerilla bases of the 1970’s, while all-night meetings called “pungwes” claim to be re-educating the population. Those pungwes were and are meetings where people are forced to attend, sing songs and shout slogans while they watch anyone not openly supporting ZANU PF being beaten, tortured, and killed.
In April and May, ZANU PF militia and war vets were mobilized in the rural constituencies to eliminate known MDC supporters. Houses were burned, many people tortured and killed for the political allegiances not just of themselves, but also of their children, grandchildren, parents and neighbours. In June the terror spread to urban areas, especially Harare, and also to smaller cities, with ZANU PF mobs targeting not only opposition party officials but also anyone not displaying their regalia. The police force too has been targeted. It is not to intervene in “political” situations. Hence none of the perpetrators of this violence have been arrested or charged, while the victims have frequently been locked up and accused of inciting violence.
An election in such circumstances would be preposterous, a mockery of a process in which the will of the people is to be determined. The people’s voices are to be silenced and replaced by refrains echoing the slogans of ZANU PF. They are being informed that they voted “wrongly” and force will be used to ensure that the next vote is correct. But still, until two weeks ago the SADC governments sang a chorus of hope that the election would be free and fair, trying to pretend that something resembling an election would provide a “solution” to the Zimbabwean problem.
It was only after Thabo Mbeki sent his military mission to see what was happening, and early bird SADC election observers began witnessing the devastation and horror, that we began to hear noises from Southern African governments calling on Mugabe to restrain himself. One by one they have spoken out about the violence, calling on Mugabe to stop it, and finally in the past ten days sending a clearer message that if it did not stop they would not recognize the election result. Only then did Tsvangirai take the step of withdrawing from what most Zimbabweans had seen as an unnecessary punishment inflicted on them by regional governments. He could only afford to pull out when it was clear that those who had insisted that the charade be played out had understood the true nature of the ZANU PF regime, and its determination not to be removed from office by any electoral process.
Why has Zimbabwe been forced through this hell? Why couldn’t SADC do what should have been done in April – insist that ZANU PF adhere to the electoral law, produce results at the appropriate time, and accept their defeat? Were they too blind to see the truth? Or was it too painful and difficult for them to speak the truth, too complicated to devise a strategy for Mugabe’s removal? Only they can tell us, but the consequences of their blindness, hypocrisy or cowardice are clear for all to see. They gave ZANU PF three months’ leeway to bring Zimbabwe to its terrible fate of thousands more lives destroyed, trillions more worthless banknotes undermining an already dying economy, institutions in ruins, and the fallout strewn through the region.
But those three months have only made the problem more intractable – how to remove Mugabe. SADC governments have expressed the view that the violence must stop and that a Mugabe government after June 27 will not be legitimate. But they still have the task of devising both a solution and the means to achieve it – the same task they faced in April.
What next? In spite of Tsvangirai’s withdrawal, ZANU PF appears intent on proceeding with elections, forcing as many people as possible to vote, and declaring Mugabe the winner. What will the response be? What we have gained so far from the international community, both regional and global, is an agreement that the outcome of Friday’s re-vote will not produce a legitimate government. But beyond that we have nothing.
On Wednesday the Defence and Politics organ of SADC urged Mugabe to postpone the election until a conducive environment can be established. They did not state what should occur between now and the undecided date of such election. They did not indicate any action they might take to deal with Zimbabwe after Friday. On Saturday morning, Sunday and Monday, he will still be in State House, with every probability that his militia will still be terrorizing the population. And then what?
Tsvangirai has called for a transitional authority run by the African Union, and supported by peace-keepers. The most SADC seems to be able to do is to call for further negotiations between ZANU PF and the MDC – talks which have been on-going for over a year and have achieved very little. If Mugabe’s government is illegitimate after Friday, will he still be called “President” by his counterparts, and treated as such? Who will rule Zimbabwe while the “talks” are continuing? The illegitimate non-president and his non-ministers? Will SADC, the AU and the international community in general isolate their former comrade? Will they quickly find a mechanism, a means to remove his illegitimate government and install a transitional authority that can return the country to legitimacy? Can they rise to the occasion and act strongly and urgently enough to avert further catastrophe? The AU heads of state are meeting this weekend. Can they take over where SADC has so far failed? This is the challenge, this is what Zimbabweans wait for, but with more skepticism than hope. By withdrawing, Tsvangirai has effectively handed our fate to others to decide – others who have failed to act up to now.
If SADC fails in its self-assigned disaster management, if the AU is unable or unwilling to step into the breach - hunger, terror, displacement, and death stare Zimbabweans in the face. The economy has long since failed to sustain us; the rule of law was long ago abandoned; control by the military is presently established, but the prospect of total collapse into anarchy, warlord and mob rule looms ever closer. Only four short days later, even the echo of Sunday’s sigh of relief has faded, and Zimbabweans face the future with anxiety and fear.
*Mary Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean human rights activist.