Behind Zanu-PF’s brutal crackdown
A journalist’s account of last week’s election in Zimbabwe and the violence, misinformation and divisions that have bedevilled the country since then
How many "political" people are in detention or were kidnapped in Zimbabwe last week? How many were beaten, attacked or injured, and by whom? And how many are in hiding?
The short answer: we don’t know.
Expecting some answers, journalists gathered for what was supposed to be a midday joint press conference on Sunday — almost a week after that country’s presidential election — with the police and the army.
But after we had waited for 90 minutes it was clear that no-one was going to show up.
Was the message we received calling us to the conference fake? Some of the news that has been circulating certainly is. And so are some of the pictures that have been sent to journalists’ phones.
On the positive front, one reporter noted that at least the failed press conference was not invaded by the police. Two days earlier the riot squad had burst into the garden of a hotel where journalists were about to hear from Nelson Chamisa, the opposition presidential candidate who very nearly beat Emmerson Mnangagwa in the presidential poll.
We do know that an unknown number of people in some of Harare’s high-density suburbs have been beaten or kidnapped since the army shot dead six civilians in the city centre last Wednesday.
Residents as well as owners of stores and nightclubs have told journalists that the perpetrators of the violence were junior army men who live as lodgers in these suburbs. Some were still in uniform, and many were recognised as members of the army even when they were in plain clothes.
It also looks as if members of Chamisa’s MDC Alliance and some allies in other MDC factions have gone into hiding. Their spokespeople have not answered phones.
At the same time, putting the recent repression aside, the MDC is deeply divided, penniless and struggling to function. Its structures are absent. And now its headquarters are locked, dark and guarded day and night by riot police.
We know that 27 students and techies with laptops were arrested after the army shot people on the streets. Some of them had been living in the grubby MDC headquarters as volunteers trying to help analyse election data when they were arrested.
We know they were hungry, as the MDC was too broke to feed them.
We also know that their bail at the Harare magistrate’s court was rolled over on Saturday. And that they were charged with public violence on Monday and were to complete their bail application on Tuesday.
The maximum sentence for public violence is 10 years.
The fate of former finance minister Tendai Biti is also uncertain. Last week he claimed there was a government plot to assassinate him and Chamisa. He also said "fascists" were trying to "steal" Zimbabwe’s election.
His remarks led police to declare that they wanted to "interview" him, a statement understood to mean that he would be arrested. Reports surfaced that they had surrounded the home of his mother.
Chamisa, too, must fear arrest after his near win over Mnangagwa in the presidential poll.
His extravagant claims of victory — even before polling day and again before votes were counted — haven’t endeared him to many. But that, as analysts say, was no reason to send in the troops.
So who, then, is in charge in Zimbabwe?
Is it Mnangagwa, who came to power after a soft coup d’état last November and so desperately wants to fix Zimbabwe? Or is it Constantino Chiwenga, the man who led the army to oust former president Robert Mugabe, and who has violated the constitution by simultaneously holding the portfolios of vice-president and minister of the defence force?
Zimbabwe’s NewsDay reports that 16 police officers were sacked following the army’s undisciplined behaviour in central Harare. But who gave them orders? And who dismissed them?
Now the MDC is preparing a submission to the Constitutional Court in which it is expected to claim that the presidential poll was illegal in terms of election law and the constitution.
It also intends to dispute the vote count, and has a list of contraventions of electoral law on the part of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.
The case will bring to the fore another test of allegiance. Chief justice Luke Malaba is a Mugabe appointee. Before the coup Mnangagwa helped change the constitution in an effort to allow him to appoint his friend George Chiweshe to the position, but Mugabe’s choice prevailed. Presiding over the MDC’s claim that the presidential election needs to be re-run could be the ultimate test of Malaba’s credibility.
For ordinary Zimbabweans, life has become even more difficult. The optimism following the departure of Mugabe has evaporated. There is no money in the banks and the black market rate between real US dollars and electronic cash shot up to 2:1 in election week.
Money changers were doing business in the open, hovering around the hotels where observers and foreign journalists were staying. They were changing electronic money for real US dollars in the parking lots.
Last week Mnangagwa allowed foreign journalists into State House for a press conference after the army’s rampage. It was the first occasion in many years that some had been inside Mugabe’s old office.
Former prime minister Ian Smith’s Rhodesiana copper clock still hangs on a wall. And a nearby cabinet contains fine china from Britain. The State House gardens look much the same as they did before Mugabe closed the place to foreign and non-Zanu-PF media in 2000.
Mnangagwa apologised for the army’s actions. But it won’t make much difference. The golden spring of post-Mugabe euphoria is over.
And the fact that the opposition MDC is split, broke and ineffective may have helped hand a two-thirds majority in parliament to Zanu-PF once again. Its internal divisions have broken up the anti-Zanu-PF vote.
The MDC has also lost some of its best parliamentarians, who were edged out at primary elections by silly decisions.
The presidential poll results — with such a good showing by Chamisa — suggest that Mnangagwa did ensure that the lead-up to the polls was free to all. After all, Mnangagwa avoided a rerun by only 0.8% of the vote.
Chamisa held many more election rallies than Mnangagwa did. The young electorate responded to him. And while Zanu-PF may still have big numbers, its support has diminished. It has little talent or skills among its vast numbers in parliament, something the electorate is aware of.
Does all this mean that we have a clearer sense of what is going on in Zimbabwe?
Unfortunately, at the time of writing there is still no way of knowing who is in charge.