Andrew Makoni wants change in Zimbabwe, his homeland. But he won’t be there to vote for it. Instead, the human rights lawyer will be in neighboring South Africa, hiding from government-hired killers he says have targeted him.
The big question is whether the scare tactics President Robert Mugabe has undertaken will enable him to crush opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the June 27 runoff election.
Makoni holds out hope that world leaders will step in and perhaps broker a deal modeled on Kenya’s which brought the opposition into government following its violently disputed presidential election.
Many Zimbabweans are convinced Tsvangirai would win a fair vote, and that Mugabe will rig it. But “even if you rig the election, you will not be able to resolve the crisis in Zimbabwe,” Makoni said in an interview in Johannesburg.
Tsvangirai’s No. 2, Tendai Biti, has little faith in outside intervention, saying Zimbabwe’s neighbors and the broader international community showed little willingness to act after the March 29 first round, which Tsvangirai claimed to have won.
“It’s a farce and it’s an indictment of African leaders,” Biti said in an interview in Johannesburg Thursday.
Moments later he boarded a plane home, was arrested on arrival and disappeared into police custody. Police have said he will be charged with treason, which can carry the death penalty. He was brought to court on Saturday but only after a judge ordered police to do so a second time.
Tsvangirai came in first in a field of four on March 29, but official results show he fell short of the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a runoff.
But since then Mugabe, oblivious to a rising tide of world censure, has steadily tightened the screws on the electorate.
Opposition supporters have been arrested, burned out of their homes, beaten and killed. Foreign diplomats trying to investigate the violence have been harassed by police. Opposition attempts to campaign have been disrupted, and the state-controlled media, all most Zimbabweans can see, hear or read, have ignored Tsvangirai except to deride him as the West’s puppet.
Mugabe has declared he will only hand over power to those who share his ideology, a state-controlled newspaper reported Sunday.
“We will pass on leadership to them, telling them to go forward,” he was quoted by the Sunday Mail as saying at a rally Saturday. “But as long as the British still want to come back here, I will not grow old, until we no longer have sellouts amongst us.”
As the economy collapses, the government orders independent aid agencies to stop working here, accusing them of working with the opposition to topple Mugabe. The effect is to put millions who depend on food aid at the mercy of the government’s own distribution system.
UNICEF said June 13 the aid suspension was hitting half a million children.
If Tsvangirai’s followers are right in saying he has overwhelming support, and Mugabe tries to steal victory, the international community will have to act, Makoni said.
An opposition uprising appears unlikely, given the measured approach Tsvangirai and Biti have followed in the past. And Biti’s arrest will be read by many Zimbabweans as proof no one is safe from a government determined to stay in power.
Already, scores of Zimbabweans have been victims of violence that has been shocking in its brutality, according to human rights monitors. The intent seems to be to spread the fear as far as possible.
In a Human Rights Watch report titled “Bullets for Each of You,” villagers describe a meeting called by Mugabe party militants to make opposition supporters “confess.” When no one came forward, a young Mugabe supporter took a 76-year-old woman from the crowd and made her lie on her stomach to be beaten with logs. The crowd was told the torture would continue until opposition supporters were identified. After 10 minutes of beating, three men came forward.
Tiseke Kasambala, a Human Rights Watch researcher who recently visited Zimbabwe, said many victims of violence were vowing to vote for Tsvangirai all the same.
Michael Mudzviti, a 33-year-old information technology specialist in Harare, also said the violence would backfire at the ballot box.
“My relatives have no basic food ... they sleep on empty stomachs,” he said. “Why should they keep voting for an individual that has brought hunger and all these hardships? They have told me they will go and vote despite the violence.”
But as fears grow that Zimbabwe could become Africa’s North Korea, the electorate itself has shrunk; out of a population of about 12 million, an estimated 5 million have fled the country.
Makoni joined the exodus in late May. As a human rights lawyer, he said, he had clashed with Mugabe supporters in the past, and government agents had said he and his clients could end up in prison. But after March 29, he said, the tone hardened, and he had seen evidence a hit squad have been formed to go after lawyers as part of an effort to undermine the rule of law.