Challenging Zimbabwe's Mugabe

Zimbabwe's most recent presidential polls have been marred by controversies over corruption and vote rigging. It's upcoming ballot, on March 29, is unlikely to be any different. The southern African nation's dictatorial leader, 84-year-old Robert Mugabe, faces two challengers. The first is Morgan Tsvangirai, a longtime labor-union activist, has stood against Mugabe in the past and lost. The second, Simba Makoni, emerged only recently from within Mugabe's own ZANU-PF party apparatus, and his candidacy has energized those who considered Mugabe unassailable. Makoni, a former finance minister and senior party apparatchik, now stands poised to give one of the continent's longest-standing strongmen a run for his money. Makoni spoke to NEWSWEK's Scott Johnson recently in the presidential suite of the Rainbow Hotel, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why are you running?
Simba Makoni:
Our country needs new leadership, we need another direction.

When did you decide to enter the race?
The trigger was the failure of the party congress on Dec. 15 to solve the leadership question. The congress was convened to endorse one candidate [Mugabe] instead of electing one.

What was the mood at the time?
It's irrelevant now. But my colleagues were frustrated, they were angry, they were anxious. All of them agreed that change was overdue for the party and for the country. Everybody was convinced that we almost lost the elections in 2002 because of the leadership question.

Explain what is wrong with the leadership.
The current leadership is stuck in the past. Their reference points are the liberation struggle and colonialism, but this country is in crisis--in many crises. History is important, but it must give way to the future. We have to deal with people's problems--food, water, electricity, the fragmentation of society, the breakdown of families, the breakdown of respect for the rule of law. Even something as simple as people not obeying traffic signals. The social fabric has disintegrated. There's a tremendous manipulation of natural resources. Our leadership has no feeling for the people. We are preoccupied with staying in power. We don't look at the suffering. The state has to serve the people, not the people the state.

What about corruption?
People are corrupt. Even Mugabe has spoken publicly about people in his inner circle, people in the leadership who are corrupt, but he doesn't do anything about it.

Isn't the responsibility as much with ZANU, your party, as with Mugabe?
The problem is not a lack of policy. There was a U.N. report which found that Zimbabwe ranked [in the] 95th percentile in policy formulation and [in the] fourth percentile in policy implementation, so we have to energize policy implementation.

If you're elected, what will you do in the first days and weeks?
I don't have specific policies. But we will constitute a national authority or a government of national unity, call it what you will. We will bring together competent people, we want to engage the people of Zimbabwe for self-determination. We don't want to give them things. They are caught up in this captive dependence psychology. We have a food crisis, and we will need international assistance to tackle it.

You have a lot of support from within ZANU, that bothers some people.
I have broad support among the people of Zimbabwe. I can't measure support from within ZANU, but it's not important, it's a small party in terms of members. When my nomination was made public, a deluge of people went to register [as voters].

What will you tell foreign investors interested in returning to work in Zimbabwe?
With all due respect, foreign investors are not my first priority right now. My first priority is to mobilize Zimbabweans to take up their lives again and to re-energize people. I cannot fail to win.

What went wrong with the land-distribution program?
Corruption. It wasn't done in a transparent manner, we had guidelines. People just went on to the farms. There are people now who are multiple farm owners. There were gross irregularities. We have people on farms who are not farming. Mugabe is extending favors in the mechanization process. There were people who got tractors, for example, who didn't even own land, so those tractors are just getting dusty now.

Many people say you were sent [as a candidate] by Mugabe himself.
This has been deliberately staged against me. There are two storylines. One is that I'm a Mugabe stooge, a plant. The second, which Mugabe uses, is that I'm a stooge of the West, of Britain and America. I was part of the liberation struggle as the chief representative of ZANU in Europe. I was in the politburo until 2005, and I was in charge of a number of highly sensitive dossiers. So that whole time the president kept me in a high position in the government while I'm an agent of the West? That doesn't make sense. He is smearing me because we parted ways.

What will happen to Mugabe?
He will become an ordinary citizen and become subject to the law of Zimbabwe. We will give him protection, which is accorded to a former head of state. I would hope that he would be respected for his age and left to live in peace. The former president will be subject to the due process of law as any other subject according to the constitution of Zimbabwe.

Some Zimbabweans have called for him to be held accountable for past crimes.
He will be treated like an ordinary Zimbabwean.

How much support are you getting from the military?
Are they Zimbabwean military? Yes. So they're also in the group that supports me.

What does the pin on your lapel signify?
It's a sunflower. It symbolizes freshness. Yellow is the color of spring, renewal.

In the Shona language, what does your first name Simba mean?
It means power and strength.

And your last name, Makoni?
It comes from a sentence which means "one who is invincible."

Do you feel invincible?
No, I don't. I'm humbled to serve.