Who Will Save Zimbabwe?

If the dead really do see what goes on in this part of the divide, one man who would be sad about what has become of Zimbabwe is the legendary Reggae musician, Bob Marley, whose music was used in the struggle to free the country from the clutches of colonialism.

In his famous track, Zimbabwe, Bob Marley had rhapsodized that "every man has a right to his own destiny" and that "on the judgment day there is no partiality" charging that Africa must liberate Zimbabwe. It was a time when the black people in the country took their destiny in their hands and fought the British overlords to gain independence so as to determine their destiny, as Bob Marley sang. And with independence, expectations were high that the country would move in the direction of development and with high sounding rhetoric from the new leaders, many people believed Zimbabwe was on the path of progress.

As it would happen, however, 22 years after the country was actually liberated from the whites, the people are now crying for another liberation, ironically from the man who only yesterday was seen as their messiah (to borrow our overused lexicon here).

After 22 years in power with the economy having seen the good and now terrible times, many Zimbabweans are of the view that it is time their President, Mr. Robert Mugabe, took a bow and that was why the election of last weekend in the country became rather interesting. Unlike in the past, the opposition was no joke and one could see very clearly that, even when western powers were mobilizing against Mugabe, he had also become rather unpopular with a large percentage of his people.

That, in the main, has led to a sort of power struggle resulting in the controversy and violence that attended the election held at the weekend the result of which may be disputed when released because Mugabe would not agree to a free and fair contest. As far as Mugabe is concerned, only him has the right to rule Zimbabwe because he led the struggle for independence, almost as if the country is a prize possession.

However, having followed with keen interest the build-up to the election, especially with regards to reports from western media, one cannot but come to the inescapable conclusion that what we have been watching on CNN and BBC could not be an accurate account of what is happening and will yet happen in the country. The point however must be made that Mugabe has become a problem in Zimbabwe and even when the constitution allows him to die in office, he should have acceded to the wish of the people and just go.

I must point out though that as at yesterday evening when this piece was written, final results of the election had not been announced but it was all too evident that the old man had rigged himself back to power. And that can only breed trouble for his people who are already polarized along tribal lines.

Before the contest at the weekend, my sympathy had been for Mugabe. That is because the British government which has been at the forefront of the struggle in the country is not doing so for any altruistic reason or because they love democracy but rather because of the land issue.

While it may be self-serving, if not fraudulent, of Mugabe to suddenly bring up the land issue when, as it were, he was losing out with the people, the fact remains that it is still one issue that has to be resolved equitably for an enduring peace in the country. And yet this land issue is the main core of the British opposition to Mugabe now, even if we must admit he brought up the matter the time he did to win votes.

In the last couple of weeks, we have been reading a lot about Zimbabwe, and any critical observer will know they cannot all reflect the situation on the ground in the country, since most read almost like Jeff Koinage (CNN) reportage of the Idi-Araba ethnic clash in a tiny area of Lagos which tended to portray Nigerians as calling for the military to come back. On the eve of his departure for Harare to participate in the election at the weekend, Zimbabwe's Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Francis Sengwe visited THISDAY where we had an interesting chat. Incidentally, I was to be in Zimbabwe to watch the elections but some problems in logistics scuttled the plan.

While in our office last Thursday night, the ambassador was in an upbeat mood as he fielded questions on what he expected from the election. He believed that the choice before the people of Zimbabwe was very clear: its either they go with Mugabe who he argues represents their interest or they willingly surrender themselves for another years of servitude under the British. As far as he is concerned, the real opposition is the white establishment and not Morgan Tsvabgirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Evidently contemptuous of the intervention of western countries in the political affairs of his country, he, in apparent reference to the last American Presidential election, said nobody should be apprehensive about the outcome of the elections which he said would be free and fair. And for effect, he added sarcastically: "in Zimbabwe our system is very, very, very tight. You should ask General Abdusalami Abubakar, when he came after year 2000 election. You know we count manually; we don't use Florida type."

Even while all of us (except for his Comrade friend, KK) argued that Mugabe should go, having spent twenty two years in power, Sengwe defended the decision of the embattled President to re-contest, saying the country's constitution permits life presidency so long as the people still vote for such a candidate.

The Ambassador argued that unlike the Nigerian constitution which stipulated a maximum of two-term of four years each, that of his country does not prescribe limit for the office of president. We told him we know all this but then would it not be in the interest of the people for Mugabe to go? Why is it difficult for African leaders to leave power?

There were several provocative questions but even when our agitations were directed at the wrong person, Sengwe still answered us with passion and you could see that he believes in the sit-tight leader in his country whose government he is representing in Nigeria. At this point, we must point out that one of the problems we have in Africa is that aides and subordinates of people in power would defend dictatorship when they are part of it and would only fight when outside but then Sengwe is a diplomat so one can excuse him.

According to him, the current president would have left office in year 2000 but for some members in parliament who stalled all attempts to modify the constitution. "What does the British constitution say about tenure of office for Prime Minister? Or are you forgetting our constitution is modeled after that of the British? When the government proposed a change the opposition said No. Now, they want to have their cake after eating it."

Ambassador Sengwe also defended the statement of the country's Army Chief who was quoted as saying that only those who struggled for Zimbabwe's democracy will be supported and that the Army might not cooperate with certain candidate, in apparent reference to Mugabe's opponent, even if such win the election. To him, the statement was an expression of the right of the army officer over an issue he felt strongly about. "We waged war to establish democracy. We fought to get ourselves back from the whites. Britain did not give us democracy, we fought for it and in the process many people died. Now if somebody says these are the values I fought for and I will defend them, I don't know whether you will say he is wrong" he argued, adding "will the Americans who say they are defending some values in Afghanistan allow their soldiers to salute Osama Bin Laden?"

When reminded that members of the opposition party challenging President Mugabe in the election are Zimbabweans too, Sengwe laughed and quipped: "Are you sure the opposition members are Zimbabweans?" He evidently has scant regards for Morgan Tsvangirai and his supporters.

On the controversial land issue introduced by President Mugabe seen largely as campaign gimmick, the Ambassador said it is a very serious issue that touches on the pride and sovereignty of Zimbabwe. He said the injustice in the land system in Zimbabwe is so much that "There are a few white people who individually own plots of farmland as big as the size of Imo and Abia states combined. Where is the justice and equity in that? Our parents suffered in the hands of these people. My parents worked in a tobacco farm owned by a white man and we had nothing; in our own country. President Mugabe is only trying to correct some of these imbalances and the British would not allow him to have any peace."

Sengwe argued further that all efforts to achieve peace through dialogue have been frustrated by the Labour Government under Prime Minister Tony Blair. "We were achieving some measure of success under the Conservative government until Tony Blair came. Under his predecessor, the man who used to work here in Nigeria, (he said this laughing with mischief written all over his face) Mr. John Major, we were making progress in the process to make the white farmers pay compensation as agreed at the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference but Prime Minister Tony Blair has scattered all that"

The ambassador is not yet back from Harare and I am interested in hearing his tales when he returns though I don't expect him to say there was manipulation. But with the way the election was handled, there can be no doubt that the result will breed problem for Zimbabwe which has now been polarised just because Mugabe sees himself as the only man who can rule the country. There is indeed danger ahead and this is why President Olusegun Obasanjo and his South African counterpart, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, have to come together to help save Zimbabwe from itself.

At the last Commonwealth meeting in Australia, Mugabe himself admitted when asked by reporters what he was expecting at a time Britain was leading the assault for sanctions against his country. He said the fate of Zimbabwe was in the hands of Nigeria and South Africa. Obasanjo and Mbeki indeed saved the day for him. But there are greater problems ahead now because not only will Mugabe and his country face stiffer international pressure, the domestic environment is going to be more volatile. The opposition will resist his dictatorship and there will be more repression.

The implications for Zimbabwe and indeed Africa will be very grave. That is why Presidents Obasanjo and Mbeki have to talk seriously to Mugabe who might have rigged himself back to power. This is the time to move in before trouble begins on the streets of Harare and Bulawayo. It is bad enough that the old man wants to die in office but he should not be allowed to take the country down with him. Except Obasanjo and Mbeki put pressure on him, Mugabe is well prepared to do that.

• This piece was first published in THISDAY in 2002

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