Defiant voters await Mugabe's revenge

Despite weeks of bloodshed, which appalled the world, Zimbabwe's people stayed away in droves from a sham election

When the first result arrived from Zimbabwe's election, it was not what Robert Mugabe had ordered. Instead it was another win for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The bulletins came in the early hours of yesterday morning by the only way they can in this terrorised country – anonymous text message. They announced that the information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, had finished a humiliating third behind two opposition candidates in a by-election on the undercard of this weekend's electoral charade.

The defiant democratic gesture will not stop the 84-year-old, known unaffectionately as Comrade Bob, from being inaugurated today, but it offered a more honest gauge of feeling in his country than his uncontested "re-election". It was one of many acts of defiance made all the more remarkable in that they came after a week of almost relentless terror unleashed by the government.

There are few who know better than Stabilo Nyathi the lengths to which the Mugabe regime has gone to reverse its March defeat at the polls. With no formal training, no facilities and in constant fear of abduction herself, she has been attempting to counsel the torture victims who have arrived broken and bewildered in the southern city of Bulawayo.

"The first man I saw, they had smashed his skull," she said. "They beat him with the fan belt from a tractor, making massive wounds on his arms and back. Then they burned him. He was in shock. He did not know where was his wife, or his children."

The man had been an opposition supporter from the rural areas near Gweru, and had had to make his way to the city mostly on foot. His was one of dozens of similar horror stories she had heard. A young, local organiser, with no international profile or protection, Ms Nyathi is exactly the kind of opposition activist who has ended up in the firing line.

"I don't tell people where I am going," she said. "I try to change the place where I'm staying as often as I can. If I get a lift I get someone to drop me three streets away."

She says that in place of the fear, there is now a kind of numbness. "I have been beaten up in the past, and after a certain point you can't feel it any more. I am not afraid. I am numb. The pain will come later."

Tens of thousands across this impoverished southern African nation were waiting for that pain to come as it emerged that many had ignored mortal threats from the ruling party and either stayed away from the "one man election" or spoilt their ballot papers. The "massive turnout" trumpeted by the state-run Herald newspaper yesterday was a fiction that found few backers. Even the handful of observers that were allowed in refused to sanction what they had seen.

Marwick Khumalo, head of the Pan-African Parliament observer mission, described turnout as "very, very low". The lawmaker from Swaziland confirmed what many others had witnessed when he said: "There was a lot of intimidation for people to vote." He also said that he had seen many ballot papers that had been defaced, some with slogans saying "We will not vote" on them.

But this will be matched by equal defiance from Mr Mugabe, who wants to be sworn in for a new term before departing for a summit of the African Union that begins in Cairo tomorrow. There he will challenge fellow leaders from across the continent to refuse him recognition, and they are expected to back down, even though many have criticised his election.

Zimbabwe's opposition has placed its hope in figures such as Zambia's President, Levy Mwanawasa, Kenya's Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, and Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa's ruling ANC, who have described Zimbabwe as being out of control. The MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who withdrew from the election in protest at the intimidation, called on the AU and the UN to supervise fresh elections.

There was also pressure from President George Bush, who announced yesterday that Washington would enforce new sanctions on what he called an "illegitimate government", and said he would call on the UN to impose an arms embargo on Zimbabwe and a travel ban on its officials. The International Advisory Board of the Independent News & Media Group, publishers of The Independent on Sunday, condemned "the sham election, the political turmoil and extreme human rights violations" in Zimbabwe. But Mr Mugabe will dismiss anything short of a military threat or an all-out embargo by South Africa, his powerful neighbour.

In the meantime, Zimbabwe will suffer. The price of defiance in a place like Chinhoyi in rural Mashonaland, once the heartland of support for Mugabe the hero of liberation, could not be higher. The IoS has seen images of dead and mutilated bodies dumped by the roadside after being processed in the torture camps run by the ruling Zanu-PF.

Joseph Madzivanhendo, an MDC activist, had his foreskin severed with a machete blow and was left to bleed to death afterwards. The headman of Madzivanzira village was murdered with an axe. His wife somehow survived an axe blow that split her forehead open. Their crime was that their son was an MDC organiser. Beta Chokurioriama, another activist, died from multiple stab wounds.

These are only three of a death toll of more than 120 confirmed cases, which doctors fear will top 500. The toll does not include those who were raped or those who had both hands chopped off to stop them from voting.

Despite the intimidation, Mashonaland voters refused to play along. Speaking by telephone from Chinhoyi yesterday, an independent observer, who cannot be named, said that the polling stations had been empty before midday. "Then they [soldiers, youth militia and paramilitaries] went door to door, ordering people to vote. They demanded to see the ink stain on peoples' fingers. The people I spoke to said they spoiled their papers."

In Harare, the post-election blood-letting that had been feared was slow to start as the scale of the boycott ruled out the kind of forensic reprisals that Zanu officials had threatened. By yesterday afternoon the tell-tale red ink-stains were hard to discern even on those who had voted.

In the meantime, the mood is one of paranoia. Meetings with local journalists or opposition officials have become snatched conversations in parking lots. Cars with no number plates patrol the streets, and plain clothes informants are everywhere.

Much of the real terror comes at night. After the polling stations closed, it was the turn of the hundreds of political refugees who had camped all week outside the South African embassy. In the afternoon they had put up banners calling on the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, to help them. In the early hours yesterday they were rounded up, along with freelance journalists watching nearby; nobody knows where they have been taken. Like so many Zimbabweans, they have been disappeared.

Statement from Independent News & Media: A call to Africa to stop Mugabe

The International Advisory Board (IAB) of the Independent News & Media Group meeting in Dublin condemns the sham election, the political turmoil and extreme human rights violations unleashed in Zimbabwe.

The IAB recognises that many African states, among them Zimbabwe's neighbours, are strongly critical of the Mugabe regime and its violent suppression of democracy. We particularly applaud the sentiments expressed by the President of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, and Nobel Laureate, Bishop Desmond Tutu, in South Africa, as well as the concern of former president, Nelson Mandela. The IAB now looks to the South African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) urgently to develop a strategy for the restoration of civil authority and a free and fair election process in Zimbabwe.

27 June 2008

Participants: Sir Anthony O'Reilly; Gavin O'Reilly; Tony Howard; Shaun Johnson; Lord Dennis Rogan; Brian Hillery; Kenneth Clarke; Sir Ivor Roberts; Ivan Fallon; Chuck Daly; Maurice Hayes; Jakes Gerwel; Wiseman Nkuhlu; Baroness Margaret Jay; Brian Mulroney;

Mayor David Dinkins; Liam Healy; Mahendra Mohan Gupta

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