Human toll yet to be counted in Zimbabwe

A man and his family look at election results Sunday outside a polling station in Harare, Zimbabwe.
A man and his family look at election results Sunday outside a polling station in Harare, Zimbabwe. Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Ngoni Bothwell Naite never told his family that he'd become an activist. During Zimbabwe's bloody election season, when Naite volunteered to guard the home of an opposition politician who'd been targeted for kidnapping, his mother assumed that he was staying with friends.

She learned the truth one morning last month, when her 27-year-old son's body was found dumped beside a cluster of shops after a government militia raided the politician's home. There was a fist-deep gash in his forehead, his front teeth had been knocked out, a bullet pierced his right armpit and, she learned later, his genitals had been mutilated, as if smashed repeatedly with a hammer.

Naite's mother, her head bowed, said she understood why her youngest son had kept his political life a secret. "In this country, in this election," Emilia Dzvairo said, "I would not have let him do it."

Zimbabwe's election may be over — President Robert Mugabe claimed victory Sunday and was immediately sworn in for another five-year term — but the human toll of one of the most brutal political campaigns in recent memory is still being calculated. Opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists think that government militias killed scores of people and abducted perhaps hundreds of others as Mugabe decimated a popular opposition party and extended his 28-year rule over this crumbling southern African nation.

This wasn't an election, Mugabe's critics said; it was a war. And many in Zimbabwe see it as evidence that hardliners and military leaders have reasserted control over the all-powerful ruling party, known as ZANU-PF.

These extremists, analysts and former party officials said, include veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation struggle and men who led the massacres of tens of thousands of political opponents in the 1980s. In some of the nastier pre-election tactics — beatings, torching of homes, forcing people into "re-education camps" and demanding oaths of allegiance to ZANU-PF — many Zimbabweans saw shades of past campaigns of oppression.

At a summit of African leaders in Egypt on Monday, South Africa, the regional power, called on Mugabe to start talks with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai on forming a unity government. But with extremists calling the shots, experts said, Mugabe is unlikely to negotiate seriously with Tsvangirai and probably would select a hardliner to succeed himself.

"The hardliners convinced him to ... win this election by whatever means," said Tiseke Kasambala, a senior researcher at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. "He let the army and the security forces do what they do best, which is spread fear and terror throughout the country."

Despite plunging Zimbabwe into economic ruin — hyperinflation and serious food shortages have forced a third of the population to flee the country — the 84-year-old president appears emboldened. Zimbabwe's state-owned Herald newspaper said that Mugabe "was prepared to face any of his (African) counterparts disparaging Zimbabwe's electoral conduct because some of their countries had worse" election records.

If extremists remain in control, "repression will continue, restrictions on freedom of assembly will continue and economically Zimbabwe will get worse," Kasambala said.

Experts think that Mugabe briefly considered stepping down after Tsvangirai won a plurality of votes in a first-round election in March. Several ZANU-PF moderates — some of whom had quietly backed the failed candidacy of a third candidate, former party official Simba Makoni — reportedly urged Mugabe to form a transitional government with Tsvangirai.

That was when the party's powerful security chiefs stepped in, a former Mugabe aide said.

Led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, a government minister who's been implicated in military abuses of civilians in the Matabeleland province in the mid-1980s, these men convinced Mugabe not to cede power. The security chiefs are known to detest Tsvangirai — who didn't participate in the independence struggle — and may have feared prosecution on war crimes charges.

"The freedom fighters emerged and decided there's no way we can give up this country to someone like Tsvangirai," said the former Mugabe aide, who's split with ZANU-PF and who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of safety concerns. "So then it became about victory at any cost."

"Robert Mugabe is their passport to immunity," said John Makumbe, a leading political analyst in Harare. "They need to stay in power."

Mnangagwa took over Mugabe's campaign for last Friday's runoff, which resembled a military operation more than anything else. The International Crisis Group, a research center, wrote in a recent report that the military, youth militia and so-called war veterans — who claim to be former liberation fighters but often are simply young government mercenaries — were deployed across the country to "intimidate (opposition supporters) to vote for ZANU-PF" and dismantle the opposition by "by targeting party leaders and midlevel activists across the country."

The incident that killed Naite, the opposition activist, and three others was typical.

On June 17 in Chitungwiza, a bedroom community outside the capital, Harare, Naite was among a small group holding a vigil at the home of a local opposition official. According to witnesses, a group of young men chanting ZANU-PF slogans tried to storm the house but Naite and others fought back, driving the attackers away.

Shortly afterward, the ZANU-PF supporters returned with a mob of more than 100 militiamen. They were armed with guns and, according to a report in a pro-opposition newspaper, accompanied by "four unmarked double-cab trucks, a mini-bus owned by a known soldier and a Mercedes-Benz sedan belonging to a local policeman."

"Our boys were just overpowered," said Martin Magaya, an opposition official in Chitungwiza. "This was purely a military operation. You cannot call it anything else."

Kasambala, the Human Rights Watch researcher, said that military leaders now might move to consolidate power and sideline the moderates who counseled Mugabe to step aside. In a sign that ZANU-PF officials were rallying behind Mugabe, Joyce Mujuru, one of the country's two vice presidents, who's widely thought to have backed Makoni's independent presidential bid, lavished praise on Mugabe at his inauguration Sunday.

"The victory we are celebrating today, your excellency, put to shame our detractors who do not wish well for our country," Mujuru said, according to The Washington Post.

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