Zimbabweans facing political dilemma

Rise against Mugabe or accept dictator's rule, try to work with him

April 10, 2005|By Laurie Goering | Laurie Goering,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - After a second set of rigged elections, Zimbabweans seeking change in their devastated country now face a difficult choice, activists and analysts say: organize a popular uprising, or give up the political battle, accept President Robert Mugabe as perpetual ruler and try to persuade him to begin focusing on helping people rather than clinging to political power.

Recent elections, marred by widespread vote fraud, were "a clear demonstration you cannot remove a dictator from office at the ballot box," said John Makumbe, a Zimbabwean political science professor on sabbatical at Michigan State University.

That means Zimbabweans, disappointed in the democratic process and fed up with repression and economic ruin brought on by the ruling party and with failures of leadership in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, need to act on their own, Makumbe said.

"The need is for the people to effectively lead themselves," he said. "In my view, there is no other solution but civil disobedience."

Zimbabwean Archbishop Pius Ncube, one of Mugabe's most outspoken critics, called for street demonstrations after the March 31 elections, which gave Mugabe's ruling party a two-thirds parliamentary majority, enough to change the country's constitution.

Election observers, including U.S. diplomats and Movement for Democratic Change poll watchers, said that the vote tallies recorded for ruling ZANU-PF candidates in many districts surpassed the total number of votes cast.

In Murehwa South District, for example, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission reported 8,579 votes cast at the close of polling and then said later that the ruling party received 19,200 votes in the district. Similar results were reported in at least 30 of 120 election districts.

"The election was stolen," charged Paul Themba Nyathi, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change. "The results are in no way an accurate reflection of the sovereign wishes of the people of Zimbabwe."

But frustrated voters have shown little inclination to follow the archbishop's call to the streets. The problem, analysts said, is that Zimbabweans live in justifiable fear of police and military repression, and no leader has stepped forward to guide them.

"In Zimbabwe, you only need to fire one canister of tear gas and everybody's back home," Makumbe said. "People are getting used to poverty, misery, repression."

Lovemore Madhuku, a constitutional lawyer and key leader of the country's civil society movement for political change, agrees that bringing about organized civil disobedience will take time and grassroots organizing. But "there is no other option," insisted the human-rights campaigner, who has been jailed repeatedly and was beaten and left for dead a year ago by government-allied thugs.

"We have to renew this fight; otherwise people will lose hope," he said in a telephone interview from Harare. "The only question is `Do we have sufficient commitment and leadership to do that?'"

Political analysts say it is now clear such leadership will not come from the country's chief opposition party. The Movement for Democratic Change, long reluctant to lead street protests, has responded to the latest election by "wringing its fingers and doing nothing else," Makumbe said.

But Madhuku and Archbishop Ncube, the country's strongest activists, cannot by themselves carry off a revolution, analysts warned.

Since the 2000 elections, when voters for the first time showed signs of rejecting Mugabe's regime in favor of the Movement for Democratic Change, the president has tried to cling to power and boost his sagging popularity by seizing white-owned farms for redistribution to landless peasants and labeling the opposition as a front for whites trying to recover power in the country, which won its independence from Britain in 1980.

Much of Zimbabwe's best land, however, has ended up in the hands of Mugabe cronies, while Zimbabwe's agricultural production - once the envy of Southern Africa - has plunged, leading to a broader economic collapse. Today hyperinflation has made the country's currency virtually worthless, underpaid doctors have fled abroad, the economy has shrunk by half, at least 3 million unemployed Zimbabweans have gone to neighboring South Africa to find work and Zimbabwe can no longer feed itself, much less export food.

Faced with that reality, "I think this is the time for all Zimbabweans to step back and look at the disaster the country is now - the economic implosion, the political repression - and say, `This thing cannot go on anymore,'" said Trevor Ncube, a Zimbabwean journalist and head of the Mail and Guardian newspaper in South Africa.

The best way to stop it, he said, may simply be to reassure Mugabe that his grip on power is no longer threatened.

"I think Zimbabwe is desperately yearning for peace and normalcy after years of turbulence and economic meltdown," Ncube said. With people still reluctant to take to the streets, a better way to bring about improvement in the country's day-to-day life may be simply to ease the 81-year-old president's fears and say, "Your people deserve better than this," Ncube said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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