Zimbabwe: Mugabe's Isolation Grows

These are strangely repulsive days in Zimbabwe--a little like watching an Orwellian horror show unfolding in slow motion. Recently, several polling agents loyal to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change were found dead. Whoever had killed them had cut off all of their arms and legs, butchered them and left the remains unceremoniously lying about. Another MDC activist was beaten so badly, and so thoroughly, that her head had swollen to twice its normal size and she was in critical condition at a hospital. But Monday's Herald, the state-run newspaper and mouthpiece of the dictator Robert Mugabe's regime, led with this cheery bulletin: "Government Rolls out Basic Goods." Bravo, Robert Mugabe. Orwell would have been proud.

In fact, there's hardly any news rolling out of Zimbabwe at all these days; the government has made sure of that. And none of it is good, or basic. Instead, it is a baroque litany of terror and mayhem. Yesterday opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai, who has been struggling to unseat Mugabe for over a decade, pulled out of the upcoming runoff election with only five days to go, citing unacceptably high levels of violence. Now, Newsweek has learned, MDC activists are investigating whether Mugabe's regime has been plotting all along to assassinate key members of the opposition in a coordinated plan to "eliminate" certain key players. "This is a war going on out there," says MDC activist Simon Spooner, who estimates that a regime crackdown on the MDC election monitoring structures has left a skeleton crew of 20 to 30 percent of its staff able to work, and those in increasingly life-threatening conditions. "They have systematically gone across the country beating and killing polling agents."

But Tsvangirai's decision to withdraw nevertheless cast everything in turmoil. The opposition candidate still has to officially declare his withdrawal to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. If he goes through with it, Mugabe will go to the polls on Friday unchallenged. Within a day he will have appointed governors, senators and a cabinet. He'll have to convene parliament, which the MDC won by a slim majority in the first round election last March 29th. But Mugabe will retain control over the upper house of government and, with firm control of the presidency, will have cemented his iron grip once again.

He will, however, be increasingly isolated. On Wednesday, in a preemptive move, the MDC plans to formally announce its proposal to form a "transitional government" with Tsvangirai as its leader. The hope is that the implosion of the economy, increased pressure from neighboring African states like Zambia and Botswana, and a renewed effort to get United Nations Security Council-approved sanctions will be too much pressure for Mugabe to withstand. This week, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa called for a delay in the elections, and is reported to be in talks to take an increased role in putting pressure on the 84-year old Mugabe to accept some sort of negotiated settlement. Even Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, Mugabe's long-standing ally, has begun to question his neighbor's behavior. Yesterday, Mugabe told supporters that "only God" would remove him from power.

A deal is unlikely, however. More probable is that Mugabe will choose to isolate himself further. Even after Tsvangirai's announcement yesterday, Mugabe thugs assaulted Harvest House, the MDC headquarters in the capital Harare, and arrested over 60 more activists. (Tsvangirai himself has reportedly taken refuge at the Dutch embassy there, out of concern for his safety). "The stance they're taking is they want to keep beating people up, intimidating, cowing everyone," says one international observer in Harare, "It's 'kick them when they're down and eliminate them as any kind of force.'" That strategy may backfire. For one, the economy has imploded. One U.S. dollar today will get you $10,000,000,000 (that's ten billion in case you had difficulty with the zeros) Zimbabwean dollars. Industry has ground to a halt. And with international NGO's forced to halt their work, and maize imports from neighboring countries like Zambia on the decline, Mugabe's worst enemy could turn out to be hunger, anger and the winter cold that has descended upon southern Africa--in other words, all the ingredients for a revolution.