June 25, 2008

At the end of May 2008, Human Rights Watch calculated the tally of misery and abuse in Zimbabwe since its 29 March elections: at least 36 dead; hundreds tortured; thousands beaten; and tens of thousands deprived of food or displaced.

Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF had two interlinked objectives: to terrify MDC supporters away from the voting booths - or simply drive them from their local communities so that they physically couldn't vote - in the second round of Zimbabwe's presidential election on 27 June. Botswana has been on Zimbabwe's front-line for many years and many Zimbabweans have taken refuge there. Batswana know that a privileged minority of Zimbabweans see the country as its personal fiefdom.

For the past 10 years, this minority has struggled to maintain a facade of democratic legitimacy, allowing the people to vote in elections but only if they vote the 'right' way, as Mugabe's wife helpfully put it the other day. But this small minority now depends completely on the army, intelligence services and police - plus acolytes in the judiciary, civil service, electoral commission and media - to keep its hold on power. It relies on human rights abuses to cow the population. The MDC has now been forced by ZANU-PF's violence to pull out of the second round. The chances of a free and fair election in which the MDC presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, could have emerged as the declared winner on 27 June were always small. Many Zimbabweans would have taken risks and voted for him, as is their right. The arrival of a couple of hundred African election observers last week was too late to make a difference. In the absence of Zimbabwe's respected Election Support Network, whose monitors have been killed, arrested, harassed or denied accreditation, who would have ensured that the security forces did not interfere with ballot boxes at the 9,000 polling stations? And what of the very clear messages from Zimbabwe's military leadership that it would take power even if the MDC won the vote?

Human Rights Watch's latest report on Zimbabwe, released on 9 June, and covering up to the end of May 2008 - shows that ZANU-PF has left no stone unturned to 'win' on 27 June. The MDC leadership has been repeatedly harassed and prevented from campaigning. The MDC's middle and low-ranking activists have been less fortunate. So far, Human Rights Watch has documented victims with multiple lacerations, gunshot wounds, plus victims with their lips cut off, eyes gouged out, tongues cut out and genitals crushed. We name many of them and some of the thousands more who have sustained massive injuries from attacks by ZANU-PF gangs and in torture camps. We also name some of the known abusers.

Since the end of May, the situation has even deteriorated further. ZANU-PF thugs have now been deployed in urban areas. The mutilation of MDC supporters has continued, now with horrific reports of burning and hacking off limbs. The numbers of dead, maimed and brutalized will almost certainly increase. We have found very few incidents of MDC retaliatory violence against ZANU-PF, and even in those few cases, there have been no deaths and very few injured. ZANU-PF's assertion that Zimbabwe is experiencing violence on all sides in equal measure is a bare-faced lie.

Mugabe may soon try to head off international disapprobrium by offering a government of national unity (on his terms of course). A national unity administration could be made to work with the right balance, but one led by Mugabe or the abusers that surround him would be a disaster for human rights protection in Zimbabwe and not be sustainable. If ZANU-PF's torturers continued to control the presidency, they would enjoy sweeping emergency and discretionary powers under the constitution. Mugabe has abused these powers in the past for party-political and personal gain. Thabo Mbeki - SADC's failing mediator - and Mugabe's few remaining allies does not seem to understand the unviability of this notion.

There is every reason to hope that Botswana will take a principled position and argue for durable solutions ahead of short-term cosmetic ones. Botswana spoke out courageously 10 days ago, hauling in the Zimbabwe ambassador to protest at the harassment of MDC supporters. Other SADC governments are known to be alarmed at the course of events, and the likes of Kenya and Rwanda have added to the chorus of disapproval. But is it too late? President Mwanawasa, as SADC Chair, has been constrained by the policy of the region's major power, South Africa. Appointed by SADC to resolve the Zimbabwe problem, Pretoria has merely appeased Mugabe for months. South Africa is not solely to blame, of course: Namibia and AngolaÕs big men have stood, ostrich-like, with their heads in the sand - apparently out of some old-soldier loyalty to Mugabe -while Zimbabwe disintegrates. But Mbeki's performance has been disastrous and ill-conceived. He has merely ended up shielding Mr Mugabe and his circle of abusers.

What of Mugabe's claims that Zimbabwe's problems are due to colonialism? Nonsense.

Zimbabwe's problem has more to do with Congolisation than colonisation. Progressive, forward-looking African leaders at the Sullivan Summit in Arusha recently rose above such dated rhetoric.

ZANU-PF also blames international sanctions. But can it credibly argue that stopping 130 of Zimbabwe's most venal officials from travelling to the West explains the country's catastrophic economic collapse under Mugabe? Of course not. The sanctions are largely symbolic. Their real importance lies in the principles they stand for and the fact that they set benchmarks for the resumption of the economic aid the country so desperately needs.

Those who argue that the sanctions 'haven't worked' therefore miss the point. SADC now needs to look at similar measures and send the same message. What else needs to be done? SADC's first reaction to Mugabe stealing this election should be to declare them unfair and not recognize his administration. Secondly, Mbeki's role as SADC mediator should not be renewed. He had his chance - and his mandate - up until April this year. At almost every stage he has not been up to the task. SADC should now ask the African Union to intervene and appoint a committee of eminent African leaders to address and resolve the Zimbabwe crisis. However, any such committee should not be the same as deployed in Kenya earlier this year. A tougher group of Africa's elder statesmen and respected judicial figures is needed. Some could come from the list of 40 who signed last week's open letter calling for credible elections on 27 June. Mugabe should not be allowed to veto any of those appointed. He must no longer assume the right to veto the terms of mediation, which was itself the fatal flaw in Mbeki's approach.

Zimbabwe will be a harder task than Kenya. It is a one-party state. Any meaningful solution must start with the architect of that corrupt, oppressive system standing down.

Democracy cannot be sustained, and human rights entrenched, by leaving the principal abuser in charge.

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