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Zimbabwe Government Threatens to Expel Western Diplomats

March 19, 2007 at 3:01 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, an African autocrat lashes out at his opponents.

The latest crackdown against dissenters in the southern African nation of Zimbabwe began a week ago. Government security forces arrested and severely beat opposition members preparing to attend a March 11th prayer protest against President Robert Mugabe.

Among them was 54-year-old Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC. This weekend, three other opposition activists were arrested at the Harare airport.

Nelson Chamisa, an aide to Tsvangirai, said he was assaulted by government agents. During a telephone interview with Britain’s Sky News Channel, Tsvangirai provided details of the attack on his aide.

NELSON CHAMISA, AIDE TO MORGAN TSVANGIRAI: … as he entered the departure lounge, he was then knocked off by this group. And he went unconscious and what — and subsequently had to be attended to in hospital.

And as I speak, he is in a very concussed state, because he has actually sustained a fracture. Part of his eye is fractured, part of the skull over the eye is fractured.

GWEN IFILL: The crackdown follows lavish birthday celebrations for the 83-year-old Mugabe, who has run the former British colony of 12 million people for the last 27 years. Mugabe has come under increasing international criticism for stifling opposition.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned the violence last week, saying in a statement, “The world community again has been shown that the regime of Robert Mugabe is ruthless and repressive and creates only suffering for the people of Zimbabwe,” adding, “We urge the government to allow all Zimbabweans to freely express their views without being subject to violence and intimidation.”

For his part, Mugabe has been defiant, blaming the violence on the opposition, which he says is supported by former Western colonial powers.

PRESIDENT ROBERT MUGABE, Zimbabwe: We do not accept their criticisms at all. Here are groups of persons who went out of the way to effect a campaign of violence. And we hear no criticism at all of those actions of violence.

None, none of these missions here has said a word in regard to that campaign of violence. And now, when they criticize government which is trying to prevent that violence or to punish the perpetrators of that violence, then, of course, we take the position that they can go hang.

Detailing the attacks

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
National Public Radio
The Movement for Democratic Change was born in 2000, when a group of opposition people, the first real opposition, went up against the government and defeated the constitutional referendum that was heavily supported by the government.

GWEN IFILL: And today, Mugabe's government threatened to expel Western diplomats.

Now for more on the Zimbabwe story, I spoke earlier this evening with Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who covers southern Africa for National Public Radio. She joined us from Johannesburg.

Charlayne, welcome back to the program.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, NewsHour Special Correspondent: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: So as far as you can tell, what triggered this latest conflict?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, the opposition was holding a prayer meeting, because political rallies have been banned. You know, there's an election in 2008, and the speculation is that the government is keen to isolate and keep contained the opposition.

So they held this prayer meeting, and some people were arrested, some people were beaten. At least that was what the story was. And so Morgan Tsvangirai went to the jail to see what was going on, and that is where he was attacked.

As you know, he is the leader of one of the opposition factions of the Movement for Democratic Change.

GWEN IFILL: He has long had his disputes with Robert Mugabe, hasn't he?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Oh, yes, he has. And I think, you know, that part of the problem -- he challenged the elections.

I mean, the Movement for Democratic Change was born in 2000, when a group of opposition people, the first real opposition, went up against the government and defeated the constitutional referendum that was heavily supported by the government. And that's when they began to emerge.

But the government targeted him more or less ever since. And after the last election, he was accused of treason. And I think that that's one of the things that has weakened the opposition, because he spent over a year fighting this charge.

If he had been convicted, he would have faced the death penalty. So that took a lot of steam out of him, as well as out of the party. But now, you know, he seems to be coming back, even in this most difficult moment where he has been beaten half to death. He seems to have gotten a new energy that sometimes was lacking in previous months.

Reaction from neighboring countries

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
National Public Radio
But to the eye, I mean, what people see is nothing much changing. And in fact, the situation is getting even worse, which leaves most analysts and critics to say that quiet diplomacy is getting South Africa nowhere.

GWEN IFILL: And yet Robert Mugabe, for all the criticism directed at him over the years, the seizing of the white farms, even this, he has never seemed to bend.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Robert Mugabe is one of the toughest politicians I've ever known about in my brief encounter with African politics, say, over the past 25, 30 years. He is strong. He is a master tactician. He is defiant.

And as you heard him say the other day, even with the Tanzanian president, Kikwete, who was there to try to mediate in this conflict that has gotten Africa torn really apart, because it's one of the worst conflicts going on now next to, perhaps, Darfur, and he stood there with the president of Tanzania, who had said that, you know, it had been a very successful meeting, and Mugabe stands up and says that his critics can go hang.

And so Kikwete just stood there and smiled. I mean, later he said that they had come to some understandings, but that those understandings were between him and President Mugabe.

GWEN IFILL: It does seem like there's a different stance being taken now by neighboring African nations than there have been in the past, more criticism directed at the Mugabe government.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I don't think so, Gwen. I think people in the region, especially civil society and human rights organizations, are very disappointed.

I mean, South African newspapers have editorialized about their own country. They have not liked the quiet diplomacy and muted stance that most African governments have taken.

Now, Thabo Mbeki, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has been on countless missions to Zimbabwe to try and get the opposition and ruling party to talk to one another.

And, in fact, President Bush, who's then-secretary of state, Colin Powell, had called for tougher measures from the South African government. When President Bush came here, it was all smiles. And the president said that President Mbeki was his point man on Zimbabwe.

So the South African government has continued to insist that it can do no more than it's doing, that this is a problem that the Zimbabweans themselves have to resolve, although South Africa has been involved in bringing peace to many countries on the continent.

But to the eye, I mean, what people see is nothing much changing. And in fact, the situation is getting even worse, which leaves most analysts and critics to say that quiet diplomacy is getting South Africa nowhere.

Opposition gaining power?

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
National Public Radio
It's difficult to measure the strength of the opposition, because every time they rear their heads, the state beats them back down. And the state, President Mugabe does have command of the instruments of state.

GWEN IFILL: So now we're talking about a really struggling economy; what used to be known as the breadbasket of Africa is suffering. Is this something which is causing the opposition to perhaps have more backing among people, actual people, as opposed to politicians who want change?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It's difficult to measure the strength of the opposition, because every time they rear their heads, the state beats them back down. And the state, President Mugabe does have command of the instruments of state.

So I'm just not sure how strong at this point the opposition is, especially in the face of the kind of firepower and, well, just plain brute power and force that the government commands.

Now, of course, the government is insisting that what is behind the opposition is the West, notably the former colonial power of Zimbabwe, Great Britain, and now the United States, and that they -- and they have put the Movement for Democratic Change, the opposition, up to these tricks.

And they also point out that their police, some of them have been beaten by the members of the opposition, and nobody is crying for them.

But I think the vast majority of observers who are in the country believe that the weight of this brutality must lie on the shoulders of the government.

There is 'so much anger'

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
National Public Radio
It's such a shame many people feel to see the country that you referred to once as Africa's breadbasket turn into Africa's basket case.

GWEN IFILL: Even with inflation at the rate it's at, and unemployment, and hunger, none of this is working against him?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, there is anger on the part of the people. I mean, there was a demonstration here -- because, as you know, the crisis in Zimbabwe is affecting the entire region. I mean, there are so many -- Botswana just closed its borders because immigrants are streaming into its country, because it's got gold, and it's got a fairly decent standard of living. Thousands if not millions are streaming into South Africa.

And so, the other day, they had a huge rally, following the Sunday incident, the beating of Tsvangirai and others, they had a huge rally. And several of them told reporters who asked, you know, what were they prepared to do? And they said they were prepared to take up arms.

Now, I don't know how serious that was, but I'm told that there is so much anger -- because, you know, there are a lot of people who have no food. I mean, they rely on the international food agencies. I was there a few years ago when thousands of people were standing in line waiting for one little package of meal, corn meal, or a pack or whatever they were passing out, which wasn't even going to last them the entire month.

And so I asked some of them, "Well, what do you do when you run out of this food?" And they said, well, look here, and they showed me their crops that have failed. And they said, "We boil this grass." There have been some reports that people were eating rats.

Now, the Zimbabwean government have said that that is not a function of poverty, because they've always done that. But the woman who was interviewed about it said that she was cooking and eating these rats because she had nothing else to eat.

And the fuel prices have gone up. People are walking miles and miles and miles to work. The health system is breaking down. The IMF said that the economy is on the verge of collapse.

And so, you know, it's such a shame many people feel to see the country that you referred to once as Africa's breadbasket turn into Africa's basket case.

GWEN IFILL: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, it's so good to see you again. Thank you.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Gwen.