Electoral Engineering:

Our votes must go together with our guns. After all, any vote we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun. The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer -- its guarantor."

Such was Robert Mugabe's view in 1976, and it appears not to have changed. What have changed are the circumstances. Then an anti-colonial liberation fighter, Mugabe's call for obtaining basic democratic freedoms by force of arms was hailed across Africa. Now the aging leader of a tattered and impoverished state, Mugabe has employed the same violent strategy but with a far more narrow purpose: to intimidate those who would cast ballots for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Indeed, long before the polls opened, officials in the Zimbabwean army made clear that the only election result they would accept was a Mugabe victory.

Now, after months of sometimes deadly violence and intimidation -- to say nothing of a series of legislative manipulations of the voter rolls -- Mugabe has declared victory with 56 percent of the vote. Domestic and international observers already have denounced the election as tainted and unfair. Reginald Matchaba-Hove of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a coalition of independent local observers, declared that "tens of thousands of Zimbabweans were deliberately and systematically disenfranchised." And Morgan Tsvangirai, the candidate of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has characterized the election as "daylight robbery." Indeed, heavily armed soldiers surrounded his party's offices in Bulawayo as electoral results were announced.

There's no doubt about the brutality of Mugabe's tactics, which included jailing journalists and opposition supporters while reducing the number of polling stations in the opposition's urban strongholds and dispersing those who hadn't voted by force. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has called the election seriously flawed, while British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has criticized Mugabe for intimidation and violence. Yet the Western powers find themselves in an increasingly difficult situation. The fact that British government has sided with Tsvangirai has been perceived by many in Zimbabwe, and throughout Africa, as evidence that the MDC is simply kowtowing to the former colonial power. And this has helped lend a veneer of legitimacy to Mugabe's claim that he is still fighting an anti-colonial war of liberation.

This is partly the West's own fault. International press coverage of Zimbabwe has for several years focused on the plight of white farmers whose land has been seized by war veterans with Mugabe's stamp of approval. Most have ignored the fact that land reform is a serious political concern in Zimbabwe, dismissing the issue altogether rather than simply condemning Mugabe's deplorable tactics. And only recently did the British press begin covering the widespread political repression of blacks and political violence against opponents of the Mugabe regime. All of this has reinforced the perception that the West is conspiring to smear Mugabe and re-impose its colonial will by defending white farmers and electing Tsvangirai. As Phillip Chiyangwa -- a parliament minister for Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party who has been caught on camera urging his supporters to kill members of the opposition -- has put it, "If they do not support Comrade Mugabe, then they are working for the colonialists. We will have to fight them just as we fought Ian Smith and won."

With unemployment at 60 percent and inflation approaching 120 percent, such claims ring hollow to the young in Zimbabwe. A majority of the population is under the age of 30, and few recall the days of white-ruled Rhodesia. In their eyes, Mugabe's government is to blame for domestic ills. As 22-year-old Adam Madhuku complained to The Washington Post, "two of my best friends are dying of AIDS and the government spends taxpayers' money sending our army to the Congo to help fight a war that has nothing to do with Zimbabwe. The police dither while mobs of government supporters attack people for engaging their democratic rights." Madhuku, like so many others of his generation, is asking, "Why in God's name should I be mad at the British?"

Yet Mugabe's colonial grievance approach has found many sympathizers . The presidents of Tanzania, Namibia, and Kenya have all congratulated him on his election "victory." When Tony Blair and New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark criticized the Commonwealth -- a body comprising the leaders of former British colonies -- for failing to suspend Zimbabwe, South African President Thabo Mbeki delivered a stinging rebuke. As he put it, "Those inspired by notions of white supremacy are free to depart if they feel that membership of the association reduces them to a repugnant position imposed by inferior blacks." South Africa has steered clear of openly denouncing Mugabe, despite evidence that its troublesome neighbor is to blame for domestic economic instability. Some have attributed this to deference; Mugabe is seen by many as an anti-colonial hero similar in stature and seniority to Nelson Mandela.

The South African Observer Mission returned to Johannesburg on Wednesday recommending that the results "should be considered legitimate." Likewise, a team from the South African Federated Chamber of Commerce excused irregularities, calling the vote "similar if not better than elections in other countries." Mbeki's government has so far reserved judgement, though his party, the African National Congress, has extended congratulations to Mugabe. But dissent is brewing: The powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions has criticized regional leaders for condoning Mugabe's political repression, while most opposition parties have denounced Zimbabwe's election as unfair. Last Wednesday, the Southern African Development Community, whose own observers were attacked in Zimbabwe, declared that the elections did not comply with the regional organization's standards. Furthermore, the Nigerian head of the Commonwealth mission, Abdulsalami Abubakar, stated that "the conditions in Zimbabwe did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors." (South Africa, Nigeria, and Australia are charged with deciding whether the Commonwealth should punish Zimbabwe.)

As yet, however, it seems that Mugabe's rhetoric of anti-colonial liberation may still have quite a bit of staying power. Of course, "liberation" is a double-edged sword, and if the comments of a young Zimbabwean named Silo Samabandla, who wrote to the BBC after waiting 14 hours to vote, are any indication of public opinion among the young, Mugabe's days are numbered. "I want to warn Mugabe that we 'the born frees,' as he refers to us, will not recognize the results of this fraudulent election and will fight his evil mechanisms to the death," Samabandla wrote. "He can deny us the right to vote but he will not rule in peace."

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