Zimbabwe goes to the brink

The "Big Man", last of the independence leaders, never seriously contemplated defeat writes Alec Rus

As starry-eyed supporters of the Zimbabwean opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) queued to vote on Saturday 29 March there were far too many police around for them to dare make their feelings plain. So, instead, a series of irreverent text messages hummed from polling station to polling station across the country.

"Bob 23 verses one to five," started one, a spoof of Psalm 23. "Mugabe is my shepherd I shall not work. He makes me to lie down on park benches. He leads me to be a thief, a prostitute, a liar and an asylum-seeker. He restores my faith in MDC. He guides me in the path of unemployment. Though I walk in the valley of Zim I shall still be hungry!!!"

"Do you know anyone with a pick-up truck?" ran another. "I have a client who I want to move. He is moving this weekend from State House to Kutama [Mugabe's rural retreat]."

For almost 24 hours the same giddy mood prevailed among supporters of the MDC. Few celebrated publicly. Most in Harare walked home from the polls - almost everyone walks in Zimbabwe these days to save the cost of a standard bus fare, Z$40,000 or about US$1, equivalent to a tenth of a standard labourer's monthly wage - keeping their voting preference to themselves and their close friends. But increasingly people dared to dream that, after 28 years in power - and three disputed elections in the past eight years - the "old man" was finally on his way out.

Such optimism reached fever pitch after a pre-dawn press conference on the Sunday morning following voting, when Tendai Biti, the puckish secretary general of the MDC, strode to a podium and informed bleary-eyed diplomats and journalists that his party was comfortably ahead. But, for watchers of state television, it all came to a juddering halt a few minutes before midnight on Sunday night. ZBC was playing an unbelievably bad movie premised on Jim Hawkins running into Long John Silver in the Caribbean 20 years after the Treasure Island escapade and falling in love with his daughter.

Suddenly Long John et al vanished off the screen to be replaced by the expressionless features of a correspondent at the state-appointed Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC).

The presenter quickly introduced Judge George Chiweshe, chairman of the ZEC. He had last been seen that same day as he was chased across the lobby of a Harare hotel by outraged MDC supporters demanding to know why he had not released any results. This time he was on safer ground. He was in the election command centre in central Harare.

People who were complaining about the time it was taking to verify the results should be patient, he told the nation. "It's an involving and laborious process. It takes time for results to filter through." And as for "stakeholders" (read the MDC) who had ventured to release early results: "The commission would like to reiterate that it and it alone is the sole legitimate source of all results."

Innocents in the world of Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party might have struggled to understand the import of what developed into a 20-minute ramble. To the MDC, however, the message was all too stark. After 24 hours of seemingly being stunned into silence, the authorities had returned to the fray: Mugabe and Zanu-PF were not going to go easily.

Party insiders say that Mugabe was startled by the initial returns from polling stations, which made it clear he was heading for defeat.

For the previous 12 months his senior aides had stacked the odds in his favour. In March last year they gave orders to agricultural equipment companies to have large numbers of rotivators, and rather smaller numbers of tractors, ready for March 2008. These were duly rolled out with great fanfare to small farmers in impoverished rural communities in the weeks leading up to the 29 March vote. Food aid was doled out to party supporters and, according to a dogged Human Rights Watch researcher, Tiseke Kasambala, denied to MDC supporters. The ZBC churned out endless encomia to the president, or the Fist of Empowerment, as he is called on election posters.

Meanwhile, day after day, giant rallies of happy, smiling people greeted him on the campaign trail, presumably reassuring him that the opposition talk of economic implosion had not been accepted by his loyal people.

As the New Statesman went to press it was clear that despite Zanu-PF's advantages it was all but impossible for it to deny the MDC had won and also that insiders in the ruling party were realising there was no way to massage the outcome. A projection by an independent survey group underlined the difficulty the ZEC would have in issuing results giving Mugabe victory. The findings gave Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC 49.4 per cent, with Mugabe 41.8 per cent.

This suggested that the MDC leader was below the 50 per cent-plus-one vote mark he needed to avoid a run-off, but the MDC's results suggested he had enough votes to avoid a run-off. In short, Mugabe had been beaten.

He was not going to go without a fight. On Sunday night he met the "securocrats" of the Joint Operations Command, the body of security, intelligence and military chiefs who in recent years have increasingly dominated policymaking. According to some accounts of the meeting, some dared to take a "dovish" stance and suggest that the veteran autocrat should consider reaching an accommodation with the MDC.

The ultra-hawks urging an immediate declaration of a state of emergency were believed to have been talked out of such a drastic response. But what is widely believed to have been the final decision was hardly conciliatory. It was to stall for time, order the ZEC to dribble out results slowly and see if they could not end up "fixing" the election in the counting process, a senior former Zanu-PF official said. Not long afterwards, the ZBC interrupted Treasure Island 2 or whatever it was and introduced Chiweshe into Zimbabwean living rooms.

The phenomenon of a long-serving independence leader being rejected by his people has been seen before in Southern Africa. Kenneth Kaunda, the veteran Zambian leader with a penchant for waving handkerchiefs, was unceremoniously dumped by the electorate in 1991. Then, in 1994, Hastings Banda, the eccentric Malawian tyrant, suffered a similar ejection from State House. Both ultimately accepted their lot.

In recent weeks both Tsvangirai and Simba Makoni, Mugabe's other challenger, a former finance minister, have tried to tempt Mugabe to bow out gracefully. Both indicated to me in interviews that they would not seek to humiliate the former hero of the independence era if he lost.

Clinging to power

But while Mugabe was unwilling to follow the lead of these regional predecessors - Harare legend has it that he laughed scornfully when he heard that Kaunda had lost power through the ballot box - increasingly, as the days passed after the elections, MDC optimism grew that a deal would be struck with some of the more conciliatory generals loyal to his regime. They would then, the MDC hoped, aided by support from regional leaders, persuade Mugabe to step down.

The smart money among diplomats and regional analysts is betting that even if Mugabe does finagle his way back into power and cheat Tsvangirai of his apparent victory, he cannot hope to last long in office. Makoni's defection, while not backed in public by many senior cadres, reflects an increasingly mutinous sentiment within Zanu-PF. While inflation on paper is a "mere" 100,000 per cent, economists expect it may be 500,000 by the end of this month.

Whatever happens, Mugabe's aura of invincibility has been destroyed by the dramatic events of the past week.

An extension of his rule, even by, say, six months, would be a disaster for Zimbabwe. Yet more desperate people would flee across the southern border to join the between one and three million who have already crossed into South Africa. Infant mortality, illiteracy and all those other statistics that made Zimbabwe in Mugabe's early years in power the envy of sub-Saharan Africa would continue to rise.

In short, the spoof Psalm 23 would suddenly seem rather unfunny. At the time of writing it was still possible that Mugabe would try to dig his heels in one last time. But there was a sense that one of the last of Africa's "Big Men" independence leaders was on his way out.

Alec Russell is Southern Africa correspondent of the Financial Times

Zimbabwe in numbers

100,000+% rate of inflation

Z$100,000 = £1.70

Z$6.6m official cost of a loaf of bread

Z$15m black-market cost of a loaf of bread

37 average life expectancy

80% unemployment rate

15.6% of population is infected with HIV/Aids

75% of doctors emigrate after earning medical degree

45% of Zimbabweans are malnourished

5.9m registered voters

9m ballots printed by Electoral Commission

Research by Jax Jacobsen