BOSTON — Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe gave another public slap to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the unwieldy coalition government within which the two foes are supposed to be working together.
Mugabe arrested one of Tsvangirai’s cabinet ministers on spurious charges. And then, to pour salt in the wound, Mugabe managed to convince one of Zimbabwe’s courts to remove the speaker of the house, who is aligned with Tsvangirai, on a technicality.
These acts of provocation come on top of months of political violence in which Mugabe’s militias have attacked and tortured Tsvangirai supporters in Harare, the capital, and across the country.
Last week, for instance, 46 Zimbabweans appeared in court for allegedly plotting treason because they had gathered to watch videos of the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Many of those arrested said they were tortured by Zimbabwean authorities. The courts dismissed the charges against 39 of them and said the evidence looked weak against the remaining seven.
Tsvangirai angrily denounced Mugabe’s actions and said he wanted a “divorce” from the power-sharing government, which was designed after the 2008 elections and requires the two leaders and their parties to govern side-by-side.
Twenty-two ambassadors to Harare signed an unprecedentedly harsh letter denouncing Mugabe for the political violence. The EU spearheaded the letter, which was also signed by the ambassadors from the United States, Britain, France, Spain, Japan and most of Zimbabwe’s biggest donors.
Has Mugabe lost it? At 87 and in power for 31 years, is he an out-of-touch geriatric autocrat pushing his country toward a revolt like in Egypt or Tunisia?
Not at all. This is how Robert Mugabe campaigns for elections.
The leader controls all the levers of power in Zimbabwe and he is using the same old methods he always has for seizing victory at the polls.
Mugabe has, in the past, set up paramilitary camps across the country, in cities and in rural areas, from which his militia can intimidate and pressure opposition supporters. Mugabe has consistently pushed through dubious lawsuits against opposition leaders and has made repeated speeches in which he warns of more violence.
These are campaign tactics Mugabe used in the elections of 2000, 2002 and 2008 — and they worked. Mugabe is now using these same strategies to win yet another term.
It is not clear when Zimbabwe's elections will be held. The accord that forced Mugabe and the opposition to form a coalition government calls for a new constitution to be drafted to prepare the grounds for elections. But when constitutional meetings were held last year, Mugabe's thugs broke them up and beat the participants.
Mugabe announced in December that he intended to hold elections in 2011.
Harare's townships, which have been bastions of support for the opposition, have been the victims of Mugabe-sponsored violence in recent weeks. Last week Mbare, Harare's oldest black township, suffered a round of brutal attacks. And now posters of Mugabe adorn its market and bus terminal, according to Sky News.
Tsvangirai's top aide and energy minister, Elton Mangoma, languishes in jail awaiting trial. Tsvangirai complains that the corruption charge against Mangoma is over a deal made by an official in his ministry and should not cause Mangoma to be jailed.
Tsvangirai further alleged that Mugabe's cabinet and his Zanu-PF party are rife with corruption, according to the Zimbabwean. He cited the notorious Marange diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe where he said several companies have been granted mining rights without following proper procedures. Tsvangirai charged that $313 million have vanished from the state diamond revenues, yet there has been no investigation.
"Zanu-PF corruption infests and infects every aspect of our economy and government," said Tsvangirai, who added that his party has lodged numerous complaints of corruption but few have been taken seriously by police.
Tsvangirai said the corruption charges against his supporters are "an attempt to cloud and obscure the massive corruption in Zimbabwe. ... The people of Zimbabwe are not foolish. The people of Zimbabwe are not cowards. The people of Zimbabwe will not accept this."
But Tsvangirai, compromised by the uncomfortable coalition with Mugabe, gives conflicting signals. Recently he described his relationship with Mugabe in such optimistic and upbeat terms that he dumbfounded the Financial Times correspondent Alec Russell. British Prime Minister David Cameron was similarly left speechless when Tsvangirai spoke of Mugabe in flattering terms in Davos, Switzerland, in January, Russell wrote.
It is hard to believe that four years ago this month Tsvangirai was beaten unconcious by Zimbabwean police, along with 30 other leaders of his MDC party. Those beatings were an example Mugabe's campaign style. And in the 2008 election, Tsvangirai nearly unseated Mugabe, winning more votes in the first round.
Tsvangirai, 59, is an appealing figure who in the 1990s forged the country's trade unions into the most potent opposition to Mugabe's Zanu-PF. Then, in 1999, Tsvangirai launched the MDC to directly challenge Zanu-PF. Tsvangirai has lasted longer than anyone else as Mugabe's rival.
Now it seems Mugabe has Tsvangirai exactly where he wants him, hamstrung and ineffective in the power-sharing government in which Mugabe holds the power and Tsvangirai must share whatever is left.
Tsvangirai may rail in anger against the arrest and beatings of his supporters. He may charge corruption and call for a divorce from Mugabe. But in the end, Tsvangirai stated that he and his party would remain in the coalition.
No, Mugabe is not crazy. He is laying the groundwork for another bloody campaign to extend his rule.
Underestimate Robert Mugabe at your peril, he is one of the most ruthless and cunning politicians in Africa, indeed in the world.