Zimbabwe on the brink: War or Peace?

After a week of talks and rumours, the gloves are off over the disputed presidential poll. Ian Evans in Harare and David Randall in London report
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The Independent Online

They've had an election; now the fight for Zimbabwe begins. Yesterday, the strange, shadowy week of meetings behind closed doors, whispers, rumours, and speculation seemed to be at a close as both President Robert Mugabe and his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai started to talk, and act, tough.

Opposition leader Mr Tsvangirai, in combative mood at a news conference, accused Mr Mugabe of preparing "a war against the people", and deploying loyal forces, including liberation war veterans, ahead of a presidential run-off vote. "Militants are being rehabilitated," he said, adding that the central bank was printing money "for the finance of violence". Calling Mr Mugabe a lame-duck president, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader said he "must concede to allow us to move on with the business of rebuilding and reconstructing the country".

The regime, having put its army veteran supporters on to the street in a show of brute strength, and sanctioned attacks on opposition offices, armed police yesterday prevented MDC lawyers from entering the High Court in Harare, where they were to apply for the release of last Saturday's presidential election results.

They were later allowed in, and the court postponed the legal bid until Sunday, after the electoral commission asked for more time to prepare its response. And after several days when the president's usually ubiquitous features were absent from state media, the state-controlled Herald newspaper yesterday showed a reinvigorated president on the front page and voiced claims that white farmers were returning "in their droves" and threatening to evict resettled black farmers. The MDC, fearing a repeat of widespread violence against its supporters in previous elections, responded by appealing to international bodies to put pressure on Mugabe. MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said: "The United Nations has to make sure there is no violence. They should not wait to come when there is blood in the street, blood in the villages."

Mr Tsvangirai joined the call, saying that the violence and intimidation would likely worsen and he appealed to African leaders and the UN to intervene to "prevent chaos and dislocation".

But South African President Thabo Mbeki, who was last year appointed mediator in Zimbabwe, urged patience. He said the situation in Zimbabwe was "manageable" and the international community should refrain from any intervention and wait for full election results. "No, it's time to wait," he told journalists as he arrived for a meeting outside London of government leaders hosted by Gordon Brown. "Let's see the outcome of the election results," said Mr Mbeki, who advocates quiet diplomacy rather than public criticism.

Despite international pressure from Western governments, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has still not announced the result of the presidential ballot. The government-appointed body has not offered any reasons for the delay, but the MDC claims it is to buy time for President Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party. Mr Tsvangirai has to achieve a 51 per cent share to gain victory but that is becoming increasingly unlikely. Independent projections show that he won most votes, probably around 49 per cent, with Mr Mugabe on 42 per cent.

In the nearest official confirmation that there will be a presidential run-off, the Herald on Thursday said Mr Mugabe would stand – a situation confirmed at a Friday meeting of Zanu's politburo. The law requires a run-off within 21 days of the first round of voting, but diplomats in Harare and at the UN think that Mr Mugabe is planning to declare a 90-day delay to give security forces time to clamp down.

Zimbabwe's electoral commission did announce the final results of the senate election yesterday, showing Zanu-PF had won 30 seats, the same as the MDC and a breakaway opposition faction combined. But control of the senate, which can block lower house legislation, will depend on who wins the presidential election. The head of state appoints 15 members, and local chiefs, who are normally loyal to him, appoint the remaining 18.

It all seems such a far cry from the talk, just a few days ago, of Mr Mugabe possibly standing down or even leaving the country. Yesterday Mr Tsvangirai said: "Mugabe is the problem not the solution." But he also held out an olive branch, saying he would welcome dialogue with the President. He said his party would not exact revenge on him for any crimes committed during his rule. "Please rest your mind, the new Zimbabwe will guarantee your safety," he said.

Mr Tsvangirai tried on Thursday to reassure security chiefs who vowed a week ago to serve no one but Mr Mugabe, according to a person close to the opposition leader. But an agreed meeting with seven generals was cancelled when the officers said that they had been ordered not to attend and would be under surveillance, according to the person, who requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

Ordinary Harareans fear a run-off will lead to intimidation, arrests and violence, especially in the townships surrounding the city where support for the MDC is strongest. Harare and the townships were calm yesterday with the presidential election still the hot topic of conversation. Groups of riot police wearing their 1960s-style crash helmets patrolled potential flashpoints. Army trucks could be seen zig-zagging Harare's main roads and traffic police staged regular spot checks.

A drive through townships such as Budiriro, High Glen, Warren Park and Hatcliffe saw strategically parked riot-control trucks and water cannon in anticipation of trouble. In Budiriro, I saw a truck laden with ballot boxes with a private yellow number plate without any police or official escort. State transportation have white number plates, raising the question of where the full boxes were going. Across the capital, elections posters remain on walls and lamp posts.

Away from the eyes of the police and feared agents of the Central Intelligence Organisation, many Mugabe posters have been defaced with abuse. On one I saw chinja maitiro, "change your way", in Shona, and zvakwana, which means "enough". On others, Mr Mugabe's eyes have been daubed with red paint – "crying tears of blood", said my driver, while other pictures had simply been torn down. Similar graffiti has been increasingly seen on walls and property with words such as "thief", "criminal" and "old man go" in Shona. Anyone caught daubing insults can expect prosecution and a beating, but their prevalence indicates a loosening of fear, albeit during the election campaign. Most posters of the MDC and of one-time Zanu-PF member Simba Makoni, who also ran for the presidency, were left untouched.

Away from the current election impasse, daily life remains a struggle for most Zimbabweans with unemployment at over 80 per cent, shortages of basic foodstuffs, a crumbling infrastructure, one of the world's highest child mortality rates, the threat of HIV/Aids and inflation at more than 100,000 per cent. In Harare itself, the physical decline of this once smart colonial city is depressing. Uncollected rubbish, pot-holes roads and pavements, broken traffic lights, cheap black-market fuel belching out putrid smoke, verges taken over by weeds. The feeling of decay is punctuated by roadside fires cooking sweetcorn and mothers wearing mberekos (blankets) holding babies, selling limited supplies of tomatoes, oranges and cigarettes. At road junctions feral children beg, while others voluntarily fill in potholes in hope of a donation from drivers.

Cruelly, nature highlights the country's infrastructure collapse with clear blue skies, warm heat and a lush variety of fauna which currently sees the flame tree's orange flower blooming along wide but decrepit avenues. In truth, the country is on its knees, but Mr Mugabe and an estimated 5,000 cohorts of corrupt businessmen, party colleagues, police, army and security officials do not care. While they spew familiar chants against neocolonialism by Britain and the imaginary land threat by white farmers, ordinary Zimbabweans scoff and continue with their daily struggles.

Election timeline: How results delay led to chaos in Harare

Saturday: Voting ends at about 7pm in presidential, parliamentary and local elections.

Sunday: Opposition claims victory over President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party based on early results pinned up outside polling stations. Harare residents told to stay indoors and riot police patrol the streets.

Monday: Electoral commission starts announcing results of parliamentary election. Seats split evenly between the opposition and ruling parties. No presidential results emerge.

Observer mission from regional group SADC says elections were free and fair but expresses concerns over results delay. Monitors from South African opposition refuse to sign report.

Tuesday: Ruling Zanu-PF party projections obtained by Reuters show opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai would beat Mugabe but not with enough votes to avoid a run-off. Government also dismisses reports of talks.

Wednesday: MDC says it won presidential and parliamentary elections and calls on Mugabe to concede. State-owned newspaper, 'The Herald', says Tsvangirai and Mugabe will face a run-off as neither will achieve the 51 per cent required for an outright win.

Thursday: Riot police and paramilitaries ransack the opposition offices in Harare. Two foreign journalists are detained for allegedly lacking official accreditation.

Friday: Zanu-PF decides Mugabe should contest a run-off vote against opposition leader Tsvangirai if neither wins a majority in the presidential election. Opposition says it will ask the High Court to order the immediate release of the results.