“I smell a rifle!” the policeman shouted, as he swaggered over to my research vehicle. This was the fourteenth roadblock I had been through during my 2 week research expedition to Zimbabwe in June 2013. The research student sitting next to me, on her first trip to Africa, was rigid with fear. Like most things in Zimbabwe a few weeks before the July elections, this had Robert Mugabe stamped all over it.
“I’m not carrying a rifle.” I answered, calmly. A twenty-minute exchange followed that consisted of a surreal conversation about what components of the rifle the policemen could smell (Wood? Oil? Gunpowder?), a list of rifles I was possibly carrying (an AK-47? a 13 millimetre? – there is no such rifle) and a detailed search of my vehicle. We reached the border with Zambia at Victoria Falls, crossed over with a sigh of relief and headed to the nearest bar for a strong drink. During the 2 week trip I had been fined a total of USD40 for ‘faults’ with my vehicle, which was in fact in good repair but still deficient according to Mugabe’s thugs. Lights that were working were deemed “not bright enough” and some moisture condensation inside one of the working taillights suddenly became an offence worthy of a USD20 fine. Mugabe needed money and the sorry state of the economy meant that he was reduced to stopping passing cars to extract fines by whatever means possible to fund his election. A few hours later I swapped similar stories with tourists at the Zambezi Waterfront bar across the border in Zambia, many having been relieved of far more money than I had, for equally fictional offences. This was no petty bribery – we all had official government receipts proving our contribution to the upcoming Zimbabwean elections.
The landslide victory that Mugabe achieved on the 31st July must represent one of the biggest electoral farces outside of the fantastical world of 99.7% election victories achieved in communist countries before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. What is worrying is that no one really seems to care. The United Nations World Tourism Conference in Victoria Falls went ahead at the end of August as if nothing had happened. The NGO, UN Watch, which promotes human rights and monitors the United Nations, called the meeting “a disgraceful show of support – and a terribly-timed award of false legitimacy – for a brutal, corrupt and authoritarian regime.” Indeed. As I drove past the airport outside Victoria Falls after my brutal grilling about rifles, I wondered how many of these UN delegates would notice that the newly prepared road into town ended about 100 meters past the turning to the airport? The road was built solely to create an illusion of order and competence for the UN officials driving the 20 kilometres from the airport to the hotels of Victoria Falls and back again at the end of the weeklong conference. This was a month before the elections and even then it was obvious who was going to win.
At the heart of the issue are details that do not seem to be on the list of things that African election monitors look for in a free and fair election. The victory was achieved, very simply, by manipulation of the voter roll. Over the years during which Mugabe has held elections, his officials have learned exactly which constituencies tend to vote for the opposition. To win, all you need to do is wipe off hundreds of thousands of names in the areas where people vote for the opposition. If you want to get more sophisticated and fill ballot boxes with fictional votes then just add a few hundred thousand names of dead people in areas where the vote is usually for the government. The fact that the voter roll was never released, despite the legal requirement for that to happen before the elections, proves that ZANU-PF had something to hide.
What is even more astounding is that the MDC opposition agreed to participate in such a flawed election and completely underestimated the extent to which Mugabe would manipulate the outcome. When Mugabe agreed to stand down if he was defeated it should have been a clue to the MDC that something was afoot. Mugabe agreed to stand down because he knew he would win a landslide victory before the election was ever held. For a man like Mugabe, who has consistently used any means at his disposal to stay in power, to suddenly agree to adhere to an election result must have raised alarm bells. The naivety of the MDC leadership was astounding. What this result means for the opposition MDC is difficult to predict. Surely this must be Morgan Tsvangirai’s last attempt to lead the party into an election? Although a brave man, and committed to change, he is a political minnow flailing against the ruthless crocodile that Mugabe has always been. Sycophants who are more naïve than he is – and without mentioning any names, I heard one of these people at an MDC gathering in Bulawayo describe Tsvangirai as Zimbabwe’s Nelson Mandela – surround him. Perhaps even he would admit now that this is a pathetic hyperbole.
All African countries except Botswana endorsed the shameful spectacle. The African Union is increasingly at odds with a Botswana that has emerged as a regional bastion of democracy and common sense. One gets a sense that the international community sighed and shrugged at yet another farce in which African countries agree for the sake of presenting a united front to the evil West, rather than standing up for universal standards of democracy.
I spoke to an old friend who had an 85th birthday this week. He is almost as old as Mugabe now, a great raconteur, a man who still has a great zest for life, and who is the most well-known crocodile hunter in Zambia. He still helps to catch the occasional man-eater on the Zambezi. He assures me that an old crocodile remains dangerous to his dying day.