22 May 2008

Zimbabwe: On the Edge of the Frying Pan

Johannesburg — With governance in limbo and post-election violence spreading beyond control in Zimbabwe, rights groups and think-tanks have warned of a military coup, martial law or even civil war.

Hope that a run-off after disputed presidential elections will bring reconciliation is fading, and calls for urgent pan-African intervention are increasing.

"Zimbabwe's transition to democracy is being held hostage," said a report released on 21 May by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think-tank.

Since the disputed presidential ballot on 29 March, Zimbabwe "has no elected president or legally constituted cabinet; parliament has not been convened, and ZANU-PF [the ruling party since Zimbabwe's independence from Britain in 1980] and MDC [the opposition Movement for Democratic Change] are challenging half the parliamentary result in court," the report said.

According to the IGC, President Robert Mugabe came in second to the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai for the first time in 28 years and "has fought back by withholding the presidential results for five weeks and launching a countrywide crackdown [on opposition supporters]."

ZANU-PF party hardliners and the military "will not simply hand over power to the MDC. They and Mugabe likely manipulated the presidential results to show a run-off was necessary, and have put in a strategy to retain power by force." Should Mugabe manage to cling to power, the consequences would be "catastrophic" the ICG predicted.

Failure to address the loyalty of the security forces "would risk a Tsvangirai victory, leading to a military coup or martial law, and the security services splitting along factional lines."

No faith in a re-run

A second round of voting for presidential candidates Mugabe and Tsvangirai has been scheduled for 27 June, but most observers fear the violence and intimidation - allegedly perpetrated by security forces, war veterans, youth militia and supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party - against MDC supporters have eroded the credibility of any possible outcome.

"There is growing risk of a coup, either before a run-off (in a pre-emptive move to deny victory) or after a Tsvangirai win," the report warned.

In a letter written earlier this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the African Union (AU) to "immediately send election observers and human rights monitors to Zimbabwe to promote free and fair voting in the presidential run-off."

The international rights watchdog said in a statement that its researchers in Zimbabwe had documented widespread and systematic violence by ZANU-PF in the provinces of Masvingo, Manicaland and Mashonaland West, East and Central.

"ZANU-PF officials and supporters, 'war veterans', the army and police have been carrying out a violent campaign of beatings, torture and killings against opposition MDC supporters ... despite the political agreement to hold a run-off presidential election, the ZANU-PF violence has continued."

HRW said post-election violence had left at least 27 people dead, hundreds beaten and tortured, and thousands displaced and in urgent need of protection. "

A run-off election will have no credibility without an end to the violence and accountability for the abuses."

Calling for the immediate deployment of human rights monitors and observers throughout the country, Georgette Gagnon, the Africa director of HRW, said: "The AU should publicly demand that the Zimbabwean government halt its campaign of violence, torture and intimidation. Unless the current situation is reversed, more civilians will be brutalised and die."

Solidarity Peace Trust (SPT), a South African-based human rights non-governmental organisation (NGO), said in a report on the violence in Zimbabwe, released on 21 May: "There needs to be a general recognition that Zimbabwe is sinking fast into the conditions of a civil war, propelled largely by the increasing reliance on violence by the ruling party to stay in power. A run-off of the Presidential election in the current environment is neither practical nor desirable."

Too late to mediate?

The SPT report called on South African President Thabo Mbeki, appointed as mediator between the Zimbabwean parties by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to "take urgent steps to bring the major parties together into a renewed mediation process."

But faith in Mbeki has waned. While the AU and SADC called for the election results to be released, and criticised the ongoing violence, Mbeki "has continued to shield Mugabe", and his reluctance to criticise Mugabe or condemn the violence "has badly undermined his credibility", the ICG report commented.

Botswana's foreign minister, Phandu Skelemani, noted that "Everyone agreed that things are not normal, except Mbeki. Maybe Mbeki is so deeply involved that he firmly believes things are going right. But now he understands that the rest of SADC feels this is a matter of urgency, and we are risking lives and limbs being lost. He got that message clearly."

According to the ICG, the best way out of the crisis would be to form a government of national unity under MDC leadership. "African leaders, with support of the international community, must step in to stop the violence and resolve the deepening political crisis, ideally by facilitating an agreement establishing an MDC-led transitional government."

Most importantly, the ICG said, with or without a presidential run-off, third-party African-led negotiations "are essential to help gain acceptance from the military for a handover of power."

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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