Morgan Tsvangirai: 'You can't expect me to be on cloud nine over an acquittal on a fabricated case'

The Monday Interview: Leader of the Movement for Democratic Change
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Zimbabwe's main opposition leader is relaxing today in his bungalow in Harare, having just escaped a death sentence for treason.

Zimbabwe's main opposition leader is relaxing today in his bungalow in Harare, having just escaped a death sentence for treason.

But despite his surprise at his sudden and unexpected acquittal at the High Court in Harare on Friday, Morgan Tsvangirai is not celebrating. He still sees no grounds for optimism in his country which is preparing for a general election early next year.

"This [treason acquittal] is more of an exception than the rule as far as the conduct of the judiciary is concerned," he says. "It was all political persecution. They never had a case against me. I never did any wrong. So you cannot expect me to be on cloud nine over an acquittal on a fabricated case which should not have reached the courts in the first place."

Mr Tsvangirai, 52, was cleared of plotting to assassinate President Robert Mugabe, at the end of a case which had silenced the opposition leader for two years. But he returns to court on 3 November to answer a new set of treason charges: that he "plotted" to violently overthrow the President through mass protests. These charges arise from demonstrations that Mr Tsvangirai, the leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), called for last year to protest against Mr Mugabe's rule.

Mr Tsvangirai says the situation in Zimbabwe remains grave. The rights of citizens continue to be trampled on. Draconian media and security laws at the heart of Mr Mugabe's strategy to keep in power are still very much in place after being upheld by the judges.

The claims by Mugabe supporters that the verdict against Mr Tsvangirai last week was the fruit of an "independent judiciary" is far from the truth, the MDC leader says.

He points to the 37 court appeals lodged by his party against constituency results in the 2000 parliamentary elections. At the time, Zimbabwe had an independent judiciary headed by Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay. Of the 12 petitions heard by the High Court, the MDC won eight, and the court nullified Mr Mugabe's victories in all the eight constituencies after it found his Zanu-PF had used violence to win.

Had the courts adjudicated all the 37 challenges and ruled in favour of the MDC as had been widely expected, Mr Mugabe would probably have been long forced out of power. But the President immediately begun purging the judiciary and Mr Gubbay was forced off the bench. Three fiercely independent judges who had ruled in favour of the MDC in the court petitions were also replaced.

It became a practice of Mr Mugabe's militant supporters to storm into offices of judges perceived to be independent and threaten them with death. The judges begun to leave the bench in droves and many undistinguished pro-Mugabe judges came into the High Court.

The entire Supreme Court was purged and Godfrey Chidyausiku, a former minister in Mr Mugabe's government, was elevated to become chief justice in place of Mr Gubbay.

With the next parliamentary elections only six months away, the opposition's 37 petitions have still not been scheduled for a hearing. Zanu-PF appealed to the Supreme Court against the eight won by the MDC, and Mr Chidyausiku quashed them four years later.

"There can be no greater injustice to the people of Zimbabwe than the manner in which these electoral petitions have been handled," says Mr Tsvangirai, who seems extremely careful in his choice of words, mindful that he has another treason case to answer. "Justice delayed is justice denied. We are now facing a new election and our electoral petitions, which should have set important precedents on the conduct of elections in this country and probably shaped the course of events after the 2000 elections, are now of academic interest only."

Faced with many other bizarre judgments, like the one which upheld as constitutional a law requiring all journalists to be licensed by the government, and Supreme Court judgments upholding chaotic land reforms as well as others depriving thousands of Zimbabweans of their citizenship, Mr Tsvangirai is unhappy with suggestions that his acquittal heralds the dawn of a new era.

But despite two wasted years as he fought what he describes as trumped-up charges, Mr Tsvangirai says the verdict enables the people of Zimbabwe to look forward to a new Zimbabwe and a new beginning.

"On a positive note this judgment may have set a good basis for national reconciliation and a national solution for the crisis in Zimbabwe," he says.

But he remains worried about President Mugabe's commitment to dialogue to resolve the Zimbabwe crisis. "The Mugabe regime is not interested in any rational steps to resolve the crisis in this country. It would rather wish the opposition and many of its opponents away. Unfortunately, that is not going to achieve anything."

Mr Tsvangirai's acquittal will now allow him to focus on revitalising his party. "Our programme of action remains hinged on achieving a change of government in this country through constitutional and democratic means at the ballot box. We are a non-violent party and we preach no violence, contrary to what the Mugabe regime would want to have the world believe."

He aims to pile pressure on the government to level the political playing field for the next elections. But the government has shown no interest in implementing a new regional protocol on the conduct of free and fair elections.

Mr Tsvangirai dismisses proposed electoral reforms as merely cosmetic. He says they fail to address the core of the electoral problem in Zimbabwe which centres on a flawed voters' roll which has an estimated 2.5 million "ghost" voters.

Mr Mugabe has proposed setting up an "independent" electoral commission but he would appoint it himself under proposed amendments. He has also proposed reducing voting to one day instead of two, and using transparent ballot boxes.

But the voters' roll remains untouched. Mr Tsvangirai's party is also barred from the public media in a country where the state enjoys a monopoly on broadcasting.

His party has suspended participating in elections until they can compete on a equal basis. "That position remains," he says. "We will assess the situation [before the 2005 elections] because we cannot partake in a flawed electoral process and legitimise its outcome."

Mr Tsvangirai insists that the only solution to Zimbabwe's problems - including nearly 400 per cent inflation, the highest in the world, 80 per cent unemployment, chronic fuel and power shortages, and mass starvation - is to return the country to legitimacy through a free and fair election.

But what happens if his MDC boycotts the polls? "It means the Zimbabwe crisis continues with no end or solution in sight." He rebuffs criticism that his party is flawed on policy and has no clear-cut programme to return Zimbabwe to prosperity even if it wins the election.

"Such criticisms come from people who have never bothered to read all our policy documents and party programmes. That is criticism for the sake of it."

From humble beginnings as a textile factory worker, Mr Tsvangirai emerged from obscurity to become Mr Mugabe's most serious challenger since independence from Britain in 1980. He narrowly lost to Mr Mugabe in the 2002 presidential election, dismissed by many poll observers as rigged.

The election caused Zimbabwe to be suspended from the Commonwealth before Mr Mugabe pulled it out at the last Commonwealth leaders' meeting in Nigeria.

Before Mr Tsvangirai's somewhat meteoric rise, Mr Mugabe had ruled unchallenged for close to 20 years. That ended when Mr Tsvangirai, then leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions founded the MDC in 1999.

The affable Mr Tsvangirai, of stocky build and charismatic manner, is an articulate and powerful orator, much admired across Zimbabwe.

Though he has often faced criticism for sometimes "talking before thinking of the consequences", causing himself unnecessary political problems, many believe he has grown into a solid leader who would defeat Mr Mugabe in any free and fair election. Which is why Mr Mugabe is not expected to allow a free and fair election.

Mr Mugabe has also vowed never to allow Mr Tsvangirai to rule Zimbabwe, describing him as a British puppet. But Mr Tsvangirai is not worried. "Even Ian Smith [the Rhodesian leader] used to declare that there would never be black majority rule in Zimbabwe in a thousand years."


Born: 3 October 1952, in Gutu, central Zimbabwe, the eldest of nine children

Married: He and his wife, Susan, have six children 1974: Started working in Bindura nickel mine and became trade union official

1988: Elected as secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions

1997: Organised anti-government strikes

1999: Helped form Movement for Democratic Change

2000: MDC won 57 parliamentary seats and he was charged with treason, later dismissed

2002: Lost presidential election, charged with treason

2003: New treason charge

2004: Acquitted of treason again and cleared of plot to kill President Mugabe