Mugabe Tightens Grip on Power as Crisis Worsens
Mugabe Tightens Grip on Power as Crisis Worsens
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Mugabe Tightens Grip on Power as Crisis Worsens

On the sidelines of the United Nations World Summit in New York, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe announced he will retire when his term expires in 2008, and has called for elections to fill a newly created senate in mid-November 2005.

This has intensified the succession race within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), already divided along ethnic, ideological and generational fault-lines.

It might also stiffen the backbone of party officials to resist Mugabe's economic stewardship, which has made a third of the country's citizens dependent on food aid, left its foreign reserves running nearly empty, while pushing the inflation to a staggering annual rate of 359 per cent.

Already food shortages and delayed salaries are making the military restive, forcing the regime to send at least 2,000 of its 30,000 regular soldiers on forced leave in early October.

Unfortunately, Zimbabwe's democratic forces seem powerless: the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and civil society lack the muscle to edge out Zanu-PF and chart a course for a post-Mugabe transition.

The ruling party is digging in, passing new restrictive laws on top of existing controls on basic liberties, such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which bars the opposition from holding meetings without police clearance. On September 9, Mugabe signed into law his 17th set of constitutional changes, tightening the regime's grip on power at three levels:

First, the changes create a 66-seat senate as part of a two-chamber parliament, designed to expand the ruling party's extensive patronage network.

Elections for the senate, scheduled for mid-November 2005, are already generating a great deal of controversy amid speculation that Zanu-PF is scheming to move forward the 2010 parliamentary elections to coincide with the presidential elections in 2008. This is taking place with little or no consultation with other stakeholders to ensure Zanu-PF victory in future polls.

Second, they empower the government to strip its critics of their passports. Additional changes, requiring Zimbabweans to obtain exit visas to travel abroad, are now in the pipeline. This will further erode freedom of movement and enable the regime to crack down on those it suspects of travelling abroad to highlight the country's repression.

Finally, these changes allow the state to nationalise land without compensation - and not only the 5,200 white-owned farms. Coming after Murambatsvina, which forcibly displaced over 700,000 black Zimbabweans, Zanu-PF is poised to take land belonging to black critics by claiming it is underutilised. This latest assault on property rights has not only nullified all pending appeals, but has launched a fresh round of forced land seizures just before the senate elections.

The opposition and civic groups are fighting back and rallying for a new democratic constitution. But on the whole, civil society remains too weak, too ideologically divided, too poorly co-ordinated, too cash-strapped and too urban-based to forge real change. Its elite prefer the courtrooms and parliament over street protests, despite obvious gridlocks to getting a fair deal in these politically-dominated institutions. Activists and politicians spend valuable time preaching to the converted in urban areas where the MDC controls well over 90 per cent of the vote.

The now palpable tension within the MDC between supporters of party president Morgan Tsvangirai and its secretary general, Welshman Ncube, is further dividing the movement. The power wrangle is also inflaming ethnic divisions, with most Shona speakers rallying behind Tsvangirai and the Ndebele backing Ncube.

Ahead of the March 31 elections, the two camps disagreed on whether to take part in or boycott the polls, and there is a similar situation today: the Ncube faction is back battling Zanu-PF in the senatorial polls now fixed for November 26, while the Tsvangirai camp has hit the road on a no-participation campaign.

The battle for the soul of the MDC has cost the opposition crucial allies in the civic realm, its traditional reservoir of expertise.

Key opposition underwriters and strategists are beginning to explore the idea of a "Third Way" - an alternative party between the high-handedness of the Mugabe regime and the inertia of the opposition. But with the dearth of credible leadership, the "Third Way" is a perilous experiment. For now, revamping existing opposition structures by staging internal elections is a more prudent option.

The opportunity for a brokered deal to end Zimbabwe's impasse is fast disappearing. Mugabe has flatly rejected mediation by former Mozambican president Joachim Chissano, who was appointed by AU chairman Olusegun Obasanjo, President of Nigeria.

To their credit, some international actors are stepping up the pressure for change. On September 20, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tom Woods said that his government is tightening sanctions against Harare's ruling elite to include members of their families as well as new Cabinet ministers. In February, the European Union renewed its targeted sanctions for another year.

Zimbabwe's international friends must also boost their support for pro-democracy forces. The outside world can and should help, but ultimately, Zimbabweans must take responsibility for restoring their own democracy.

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