Posted on April 2, 2008

Is Mugabe Losing His Grip?

Farai Sevenzo, BBC News, April 2, 2008

It has finally happened. The impossible has been achieved by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

For the first time since independence in 1980, Zanu-PF has lost control of Zimbabwe’s house of parliament.

But this does not answer all the questions that are preying on Zimbabwean minds.

Actually, one main question—who is their president?

The rumours began shortly after 1800 on Tuesday—the president of the republic would address the nation on television.

Would he concede? Would he hold on for a run-off engineered by the counters at the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission?

Those of us without televisions rang the televisually advantaged.


But the president did not address the nation, the rumours of his defeat remained just that, rumours, spurred on further by yet another MDC press conference.

“Do you know Mugabe? Do you know him?” said a Zanu-PF insider, “when has anyone ever managed to put him into a corner?”

But the president’s silence has given scope to the kind of speculation on which governments falter.

The military and Zanu-PF insiders are said to be breaking it to him gently that the voters had chosen another path.

There have been no meetings between Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change—that is a pattern of negotiation reserved for fallen armies.

In this case, it is common knowledge that the president despises this “upstart foreign sponsored opposition,” and to any casual observer, that he is still the commander-in-chief of a hardened and so far loyal state security apparatus.

To those of us who have been watching these two sides spar, it is impossible to imagine negotiations of that nature between them.

The path on which they have travelled is strewn with bodies, disfigured and dead, with petrol bombings, arrests, torture, militia beatings and complete and total distrust.

When last they talked, under the arbitration of the South Africans, in preparation for these elections, they had failed to agree on so many issues.

An “exit” package, as was widely reported, was not, after all, on the table.

‘Enfant terrible’

And so the Zimbabweans, who gathered by their televisions last night, gripped and on tenterhooks, were gathering out of disbelief and a healthy amount of cynicism.

In the end, all they got was some more painfully slow announcements of the parliamentary results in the local languages, Ndebele and Shona, and no clear indication about who is leading, who the likely winner is, and absolutely no mention of the presidential poll.

The state-run ZBC news followed, and because of the rumour of a presidential address of some significance, the ratings must have gone through the roof for the first time in decades.

But the news ended and the viewers were numbed by a “drama” of the television variety, real actors and soppy plot.

Where to now? Since Saturday night, Zanu-PF’s enfant terrible, “this ungrateful boy” as the president described him—Simba Makoni—has been largely ignored.

As the figures came in it was obvious he had had too little time to prepare despite his massive international coverage, and that his involvement had only succeeded in splitting the Zanu-PF vote.

The real heavyweight contest was between the incumbent and the once bruised challenger Morgan Tsvangirai.

No more.

Enter the new scenario—a run-off for the presidency.

Energy reserve

In this scenario, the new kid on the block, Mr Makoni, is being sweet-talked by government and the opposition to strengthen their grip.

Is that the case?

I ring up his people, convinced that this is where things are going and speak to an official who tells me repeatedly not to name him.

Things are very sensitive.

Can you confirm that you are talking to either side?

“It’s now public knowledge that they are both courting us. The MDC and Zanu-PF have been in closed door talks with us since Monday night. If there is a run-off, our people will swing it.”

What does he make of the situation? The delay, the uncertainty?

“Part face-saving gesture, part dented pride. I think his pride has been seriously dented. It is not in the president’s DNA to accept defeat.”

Does he feel betrayed by you, the Simba Makoni people?

“The irony is that we probably saved him. That 8%—10% we took in Bulawayo allowed him and Zanu-PF to compete with the MDC in that province. Without us he would have lost outright the whole of Bulawayo.”

My township contacts call to say the police are patrolling the township streets again this morning.

This time soldiers in uniform accompany them.

A run-off would mean another three weeks or so of this.

The tension is only just beginning to build.

What is in the 84-year-old’s energy reserve tank?

Lesson number one: It is unwise to write him off.

President Robert Mugabe fought to survive the biggest crisis of his rule on Wednesday after losing control of Zimbabwe’s parliament for the first time since taking power after independence.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change said Mugabe had also been defeated in a presidential election last Saturday and should concede defeat to avoid embarrassment.

Mugabe’s aides angrily dismissed the MDC claim, hinting the opposition could be punished for publishing its own tallies despite warnings this would be regarded as an attempted coup.

But the state-owned newspaper and projections by Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party conceded that he had failed to win a majority for the first time in 28 years.

Official results of the parliamentary election, which have trickled out slowly since last Saturday’s election, showed that Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF could not outvote the combined opposition seats.

Official figures said the mainstream Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had taken 105 seats, a breakaway faction 9 and an independent 1 in the 210-seat parliament.

Mugabe’s ZANU-PF has so far taken 94.

Mugabe, 84, faced an unprecedented challenge in the elections after being widely blamed for the economic collapse of his once prosperous nation.

The mainstream MDC faction said its leader Morgan Tsvangirai had won 50.3 per cent of the presidential vote and Mugabe 43.8 per cent according to its own tallies of results posted outside polling stations.

No official results have emerged in the presidential vote.

But all the signs are that Mugabe, a liberation war hero still respected throughout Africa, is in the worst trouble of his rule.

MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti said Tsvangirai had an absolute majority, enough for outright victory, but he would accept a second round runoff against Mugabe “under protest”.

Analysts said the president was likely to be humiliated in a runoff and the defeat in the parliamentary vote would remove some of his power of patronage—a plank of his long and iron rule.

His government called the MDC claim “mischievous”.

Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga told Sky television: “President Mugabe is going nowhere. We are not going to be pressurised into anything.”

Matonga said in a telephone interview with Sky: “No-one is panicking around President Mugabe. The army is very solidly behind our president, the police force as well.”

Mugabe’s spokesman, George Charamba, said the MDC was in contempt of the law by announcing results. “You are drifting in very dangerous territory and I hope the MDC is prepared for the consequences,” he said.

Mugabe, known for his fierce and defiant rhetoric, has not been seen in public since voting, despite speculation he would make a television address on Tuesday night.

The government appears to have been preparing the population for a runoff by revealing its own projections showing a second round would be required in the statutory three weeks after last Saturday’s vote.

Both Tsvangirai and the government have dismissed widespread speculation that the MDC was negotiating with ZANU-PF for a managed exit for Mugabe, who has ruled uninterrupted since independence from Britain in 1980.

Analysts said Mugabe was unlikely to make a negotiated exit but go down fighting in the second round.

“He is not the type that quietly walks away into the sunset,” a senior Western diplomat said in Harare.

The prospect of a runoff has raised fears both inside and outside Zimbabwe that the hiatus before a new vote would spark serious violence between security forces and militia loyal to Mugabe on one side and MDC supporters on the other.

The state-owned Herald newspaper also said the government had decided to immediately implement tax relief to cushion the effect of runaway inflation, officially over 100,000 percent but estimated to be much higher—the world’s highest rate.

The widening of workers’ tax-free threshold tenfold to 300 million Zimbabwean dollars per month—$US10,000 ($A11,035) at the government’s official rate but about $US7.50 ($A8.28) on the black market—is widely seen as an attempt to curry favour with voters and suggests ZANU-PF is preparing for a runoff.

The opposition and international observers said Mugabe rigged the last presidential election in 2002. But some analysts say the groundswell of discontent over the economy is too great for him to fix the result this time without risking major unrest.

Apart from surreal inflation and a virtually worthless currency, Zimbabweans are suffering food and fuel shortages and an HIV/AIDS epidemic that has contributed to a steep drop in life expectancy.

The opposition, including former Finance Minister Simba Makoni, who stood as a third candidate, is expected to unite behind Tsvangirai if there is a runoff.