On the fifth anniversary of Tonderai Ndira's death, how much has changed in Zimbabwe?

Amid all the bloodshed of Zimbabwe’s 2008 election, it was the murder of the 30-year-old Tonderai Ndira that caught the international media’s attention. He became a symbol for the country's political struggles. Five years on, Zimbabwe is transformed, but

The shadows were lengthening when Tonderai Ndira and his two friends huddled around a table in a suburban Harare garden, and started singing in their native Shona. The words were lost on me, but their intensity wasn’t. When they’d finished, Tonderai translated: “That one is all about I'm dedicated to liberate Zimbabwe, so you should not cry when I get killed.” That was March 2007.

At dawn on 14 May, 2008 - not long after Robert Mugabe had lost a first-round Presidential election to his bitter foe Morgan Tsvangirai - Tonderai slept while his wife Plaxedes made porridge for their two children at their home in the impoverished township of Mabvuku, east of Harare. Around eight armed men wearing masks and dressed in plain-clothes barged in and pulled him from his bed. “They’re going to kill me,” Tonderai shouted to his wife, as they dragged him outside, still in his underwear. His children watched from the doorstep as he was shoved into a truck and driven off.

A week later, in a Harare mortuary with bodies on the floor and failing electricity, Cosmas Ndira recognised his brother’s decomposing remains only by his height and his distinctive wrist bangle. According to the post-mortem, he’d been asphyxiated.

Amid all the bloodshed of Zimbabwe’s 2008 election, it was the murder of the 30-year-old Ndira that caught the international media’s attention. In death, the tall, charismatic youth leader for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, who had been arrested 35 times - more often it’s said, than anyone in the country’s political history - became known as ‘Zimbabwe’s Steve Biko’. Like South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon, he had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country’s freedom.

I first met Tonderai in 2004 and on my regular trips to Zimbabwe he would take me to places which were otherwise off-limits, and introduce me to people on the front-line of the country’s political struggle.

His laid-back manner and languid, reggae man, dread-locked style masked an unshakeable resolve, and an antenna highly tuned to danger. To Zimbabwean activists his deeds became legendary: once when the police were hunting for him he joined the search party without them realising who he was, and twice he escaped custody by jumping out of a truck. But during the febrile days in 2008 when Mugabe’s long reign appeared to be drawing to an end, the regime’s desire to eliminate its enemies took on a new urgency.

Today [14 May], on the fifth anniversary of Tonderai’s abduction and murder and with another election looming, much has changed in Zimbabwe: Tsvangirai and Mugabe are in an uneasy power-sharing agreement, the devastated economy has been revived, a new - albeit flawed - constitution has been agreed, some Western sanctions have been lifted, and Zimbabwe and the UK recently held their first bilateral talks in more than a decade.

Deep political fault-lines remain, but for all its messy, difficult compromises, the accommodation between Tsvangirai’s MDC and Mugabe’s Zanu-PF has improved the lives of many ordinary Zimbabweans. This year’s election could as easily see this relative stability continue, or herald more violence and repression. Yet at some point, past crimes must be reckoned with, and the country’s culture of impunity stretching back more than 30 years finally broken.

When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 after a seven-year civil war between Ian Smith’s white minority regime and the guerrilla forces of Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, an amnesty was granted and no-one was held accountable for the many atrocities committed. Some Rhodesian intelligence and army officers even moved seamlessly to work under the new government - led by the very people they had recently tortured or tried to kill. In 1988 another amnesty was granted, this time for those guilty of the Gukurahundi massacres, in which around 20,000 civilians were murdered by government forces in Matabeleland, western Zimbabwe.

The course of this history isn’t about to change. Last October the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) was set up to investigate human rights abuses. But its remit was limited to crimes committed after 2009, and in January its chairperson resigned because of its lack of credibility and independence.

Speaking at Tonderai’s funeral, Morgan Tsvangirai demanded justice for the victims of state-sponsored violence: “We can forgive all other things, but I think we would have stretched our humility too far if we forgave this. Mugabe and his cronies are always preaching about sovereignty. They should know that no sovereignty is greater than giving people the right to live,” he said.

Five years on, as Tonderai’s friends and family gather in Mabvuku to remember him, his status among many Zimbabweans as a national hero is secure. But as long as his killers – and the many other perpetrators of political violence in Zimbabwe – evade justice, the “sovereignty” Tsvangirai spoke of remains an illusion.

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his wife Elizabeth Tsvangirai in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.