Washington, DC — Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe has become an opposition stronghold, electing in March 2002 from the ranks of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) the city's Executive Mayor and most of the city council.
Almost immediately after that election, a power struggle between Minister of Local Government, Ignatius Chombo, and Harare's new MDC Mayor, Elias Mudzuri, a civil engineer by profession, ensued. Zanu-PF department heads were fired by Mudzuri. Chombo blocked badly needed funds for local improvements and development. Last March, young Zanu-PF supporters toyi-toyi'd around Town House - Harare's city hall - chanting: "Mudzuri should be beaten up, he must be killed and he must be removed."
A month later, Mudzuri was suspended from his post by Chombo who alleged misconduct on the part of Mudzuri. But despite the suspension, Mudzuri has insisted that he was still entitled to hold civic and council meetings in the municipality. Chombo has made an "urgent application" to the High Court to bar Mudzuri from executing council duties while under suspension. So far, the court has made no judgement.
All of this has been unfolding against the backdrop of a worsening political and economic conditions in Harare and across Zimbabwe. Monday, a week of planned protests across Zimbabwe began and an MDC news release,at the end of the day reported that members of the army and police had opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in the Highfields district of Harare. MDC leaders vow to continue with the protests.
Mudzuri has been in the States during these protests, "resting a bit" he says, and also trying to raise some money for the MDC; "we are broke," he says. He is awaiting the June 5th start of the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting that will be held in Denver this year. Although this will be the 71st meeting of the U.S. conference, the 2nd International Conference of Mayors will be going on concurrently. AllAfrica.com's Charles Cobb Jr. spoke with Mudzuri before he left for Denver. Excerpts:
You were suspended as Mayor last April and the man who suspended you, the Minister of Local Government, Public Works and National Housing [Ignatius Chombo], has asked the High Court to bar you from executing your duties as Mayor. Are you still the Mayor of Harare in any real sense?
Until the courts decide, I am the mayor even though I have been suspended. But I have not accepted the suspension, on the basis that it is illegal to follow illegal orders from the Minister. I strongly believe that the government is just playing politics.
But can you now walk into your office, pick up the telephone and tell an agency, 'This is the Mayor...'
I did that but the police came after me. They literally removed me from office. Maybe after this court gives a verdict we can see how we will proceed. The minister went to court to enforce his suspension. It has been heard but there is no verdict yet.
They want to assess whether I am suitable or not. The minister didn't do that. he simply said, 'Go away.' This was a political move agreed to at cabinet levels: "Just throw him out and see what they will do."
They even took my keys for the official car and up to now I haven't gotten them back.
What was at issue between you and the minister, or you and the national government?
I am the mayor who was elected by over a million people in Harare and I've been running [city] council affairs in a very transparent and accountable manner, but the minister has been interfering with the work, trying to make sure that I don't perform as much as I am supposed to. Since I got in he has always aimed to remove me.
Because of lack of tolerance by Zanu-PF; it doesn't tolerate opposition views. Out of 45 councilors [in Harare] 44 are MDC; only one is Zanu-PF. And the Mayor is MDC. The council has been reasonably successful. We are getting all the handshakes from the public who say, "You are doing well under very difficult circumstances." The minister ran that council for three years and he did nothing substantial that people were appreciating. I am an engineer. I know the core business of the council. I worked for the council before and I have been undoing all the corruption which has been greasing the hands of the ruling party members.
Right now, Harare is being rocked by protests or strikes that the MDC has called. Some 150 people, including most of the MDC leadership was arrested Tuesday. Will you talk about this at two levels: first as the mayor of the city in which these strikes are taking place, with protestors faced with bullets and tear gas and thousands saying away from work and business even if they are not in the streets. And secondly, as an MDC leader; How worried are you that this crackdown might break the back of the MDC?
The people of Harare have really suffered. Since they started electing the MDC into office, the government has never forgiven them. They have had no mealie meal which is the basic food to make sadza [cornmeal porridge]. We have not been given borrowing power by the government. We have not been given adequate foreign currency by the government. There is literally nothing the government has done to assist us.
So, the Harare people have nothing to lose by going to the streets. Actually it's a demonstration to say the government is not treating them as normal human beings. They have not been allowed their democratic right to choose their leadership. And when they exercise their democratic rights the government has been arresting as many as possible at every opportunity. I have been arrested as their mayor in December! They have stopped me from attending some of their national events where the mayor should be present. The government has been intolerant. So the only voice they have is to demonstrate. I wouldn't call it a strike; it's a demonstration to show that the government is no longer for them. The health system has collapsed. There is no money in the banks. There is no food in the shops. There is no sugar.
Almost everything is not there, which means that the government has seriously failed and the people are now saying, "Enough is enough!"
Let's have a scenario where we can have free and fair elections being held with an interim body that can supervise proper elections within the system. It won't be local; it must be worked out by African leaders. African leaders must rescue Zimbabwe because although Zimbabweans have to solve their own problems they are crying out to the world by moving into the streets and the streets are infested by army guys beating up people into submission, threatening them with guns, while the world is just looking and watching to see what will happen next.
African leaders have been trying to involve themselves with Zimbabwe. They have been suggesting a kind of transitional government made up of MDC and Zanu-PF which the MDC doesn't like. They are suggesting that Mugabe should step down, the vice president should move up and manage a transition leading to election for a brand new government. What's wrong with that plan?
It is not so easy for the MDC to accept because it has been fighting for elections under very difficult conditions. The government has got control over the police and some other guys who have been involved in rigging elections. So, whatever transitional authority where you engage the system intact would not help us because they would do the same thing they have done in previous elections. This is why MDC is saying we need a neutral body which doesn't help the authority of Mugabe over the army and the police. Because this is where the problem is. The country has become a police state and the MDC would be just a shadow under Mugabe. So they need a neutral sort of body, a caretaker government if possible.
I assume in terms of that caretaker government you see Mugabe out of the political picture entirely.
So that he has no control over the arms that have repressed us. As long as he is in the picture he is likely to instruct these guys to 'stop this' or 'do that' and these guys will respond because that is what they are used to.
How likely is this -- getting a caretaker government followed by an actual new election, or do you worry that Zimbabwe in general and Harare in particular will slide into chaos?
We don't want chaos! If Mugabe and his people were more tolerant, and interested in allowing any other body to take part in the political system they would have tolerated these elections [which put us into office in Harare] but they have refused. Somebody has to act to make sure that tolerance comes into play. And we are trying to look at Thabo Mbeki as President of South Africa. He is a giant in terms of [our] country, just like [former Rhodesian Prime Minister] Ian Smith was brought into line by South Africa. When Smith ended up at the negotiating table it was South Africa that had played a big role [in getting him there].
And South Africa needs to play a big role today. Thabo Mbeki must look at Zimbabwe as a crisis scenario rather than say, "that's the opposition, I'll only deal with government." We are expecting him to ask, "What is it that is causing all of these Zimbabweans to run away from Zimbabwe?" Within three years, how many are in South Africa? How many are in Botswana?
So you don't feel that Thabo Mbeki is putting enough pressure on Mugabe or the Zimbabwe government?
I wouldn't use the word pressure. I would call it engaging Mugabe, saying, "what are you achieving by this?" Because he [Mbeki] is sustaining him [Mugabe] on borrowed time. If Mbeki says, "let's get the truth," he will come up and say, "Mugabe, my brother, I'm here to help you sort out your problems." What has happened is sort of the opposite: let it languish until [the allegations are] proven about the government.
Tsvangirai has challenged the legitimacy of the last election. The reason we went to court is not that we trust the courts, but we want to show what has been going on to the world. That is the only platform that the MDC has. We know that we will not get any sort of judgement [in our favor] but if we can expose what has been happening, then the world can know exactly what we went through in the elections.
Speaking of courts, how worrying are the treason charges against Tsvangirai currently being heard in court?
It will continue. You can see that putting treason charges on every opposition leader is a trait of Mugabe's regime. Joshua Nkomo had treason charges placed on him; he had to run away in a dress last time. Ndabaningi Sithole ended up with treason charges accusing him of hiding some arms under a bridge. And today, Morgan Tsvangirai is going through the same thing. I don't think the MDC is thinking of using any violent means for change. It is trying to engage the government to commit to democratic principle, which it [the government] has refused to practice. Mugabe has declared that he is the only sovereign of Zimbabwe. And we are saying no! We are the sovereigns of Zimbabwe. But we are not allowed a voice on television. We are not allowed a voice on radio. We are not allowed a voice in the public arena. So where will we talk? And this is where we are saying that South Africa and the SADC (South African Development Community) region must look at this thing and ask, "Why must the opposition always be in prison?"
Mugabe calls us puppets. Is he considering the whole of Harare "puppets"? Why are they electing [us]? They cannot all be puppets. It is a view that Mugabe has managed to project. He has played the color card well. If we want to go for elections then we must allow people to say what they are supposed to say and elect people they want to elect without beating them into submission, without putting them in jail cells every time, without creating war cabinets for war against the people. Democracy. If we want chiefs then we should go to chiefdoms.
Right now we have lost more than three million people. Are they running away from good governance? A million Zimbabweans are in London. they are afraid of this administration, and what is Africa doing to stop this madness [in Zimbabwe]?
There is fairly significant disagreement with Mugabe's policies inside Zanu-PF. But no significant challenge to Mugabe from inside. Why not?
The fact is that these opinions are not surfacing and that we can only suspect that they are there, shows that [Zanu-PF members] are afraid of Mugabe. As long as that is true they will just keep their disagreements within themselves. This is further illustration of the fact that Mugabe must step down before we can do anything. Dissenting voices in Zanu-PF will not be able to raise up.
It's difficult to understand Mugabe. Is this a new Mugabe that we are looking at or is this a Mugabe that has always been there? We have Mugabe, on the one hand, one of the heroes of southern African liberation and on the other, the Mugabe who seems to be a tyrant clinging to power for 30 years.
Even in biblical terms, "The Lord anointeth leaders but they failed along they way." Show me a single policy that Mugabe has given in the past few months that shows that he is interested in developing the economy or the country. There is not a single one. He has talked about land and the land has been given away but there is no food. No one has been able to farm. There is no seed to do the farming in the shops. The time he has been in power is too long. Power has corrupted him absolutely. That is all I can say. It is now for historians to analyze.
What do you predict for Zimbabwe? Most immediately for this strike, and in the longer term, for the country.
Whatever Mugabe wants to do is not sustainable. All the leaders who are protecting him will discover that it is not sustainable. Zimbabweans are tired; they don't want him anymore. Mugabe and Zanu-PF must gear themselves to be in the opposition for a while.
We must learn to come out of government by election not to remain in power by force. I think Zimbabwe will be a unique place because so far it has demonstrated that people are [determined] to have a proper democracy by putting in the opposition in such numbers. If this world looked at it and encouraged it you would see that Africa would change, starting with Zimbabwe, allowing different voices to say what they can say, and be elected. Even if they are fools they should be elected, if that's what the people want, then they can elect a fool. Next time they won't elect a fool.
Will Mugabe step down?
He will but he needs enough pressure from the regional leaders because the Zimbabweans themselves have given him enough pressure.