MARGARET WARNER: The Zimbabwe government of President Robert Mugabe has extended its pre-election crackdown to cover international aid groups. Some were told to curb their activities, and CARE was ordered to cease its operations altogether.
Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans depend on foreign groups for food.
Yesterday, at a food conference in Rome, President Mugabe accused nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, of interfering in the politics of his country.
In addition, Zimbabwe police today detained opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. He and Mugabe face each other in a runoff presidential election on June 27th. He was later released.
For more on all this, we turn to Nicole Lee, executive director of TransAfrica Forum, an advocacy group based in Washington; and Clarence Lusane — am I saying that right? — professor of political science and international relations at American University.
We invited Zimbabwe’s ambassador to join the discussion, but the embassy did not respond to our request.
And welcome to you both.
Nicole Lee, beginning with you, what’s really behind Mugabe’s order to these international aid groups to either cease altogether or cut back on their operations?
NICOLE LEE, TransAfrica Forum: Well, this is actually not unprecedented. There has been times when the Mugabe regime has asked aid organizations to cease and desist their operations.
But at this point, given the situation with the runoff, given the fact that Morgan Tsvangirai’s party, the MDC, Movement for Democratic Change, have really shown that they do have a foothold in this country, it’s pretty clear that the Mugabe regime is nervous about people, organizations, international aid groups, meddling in the affairs of Zimbabwe.
And this is one way that they can control the population. Certainly, if you can’t eat, you’re not going to be so concerned about the vote.
MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that?
CLARENCE LUSANE, American University: It’s important to look at this in the broader context of what the long history of the Mugabe regime leading up to the elections launching these attacks.
Unfortunately, but predictably, what we’re seeing is that the embarrassment that the administration is suffering from, the fact that it has to deal with a food crisis, and that what was once one of the prime countries in all of Africa, in terms of producing food, has been reduced to literally dependence on the global community and on these NGOs and on the United Nations.
So there’s an embarrassment element that’s there, but there’s also a hostage element that’s there, that if people know that now they’re going to be depending on the Mugabe government to deliver food, that will put a big check on the degree to which people will express support for the MDC.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Human Rights Watch also said that they really want to eliminate witnesses to what’s going on. Do you think that’s a factor?
NICOLE LEE: Absolutely. There are many factors coming together right now.
You have an inflation rate that is about 100,000 percent. You have a situation where 80 percent of the people are unemployed. And this is a situation that has been perpetual, so people have remained unemployed for years and years. People have been now malnourished for years and years.
Now you have a situation where people in Zimbabwe are beginning to say, “Enough is enough.” And while they believe in the liberation movement that took place 25 years ago, they do want change right now today.
MARGARET WARNER: That Mugabe’s party and Mugabe was central to.
NICOLE LEE: Absolutely. Absolutely. And yet that is still very important, not just historically, but in today’s Zimbabwe.
But the truth for the people on the ground in Zimbabwe is that many of the reforms the Mugabe’s regime has put forth have not worked for them. And so they are looking for change.
And so, certainly, these factors have compounded upon each other. And now we’re seeing the government’s response really is to ensure that there are no witnesses to what’s going on.
4 Million in Need of Assistance
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what is going to be the impact, practically speaking? How many people are going to be affected by this? How dependent, Professor, are the Zimbabwean people on these international groups?
CLARENCE LUSANE: Unfortunately, very dependent. It's estimated that, in total, there are probably about 4 million people in Zimbabwe who are in need of food assistance.
MARGARET WARNER: And that's out of a population of, what, 12 million, 13 million?
CLARENCE LUSANE: Twelve million, thirteen million. And CARE directly works with over 100,000 of these people. But Save the Children, other organizations are also working with tens and tens of thousands of people.
To cut people off means that, within the next month or so, people will be on the brink of starvation. And so there's a very serious kind of circumstance.
And I hope that other leaders in the region will look at it, not in terms of directly what's going to impact on the politics, but just at the humanitarian level, the need that people are going to have that really has to be taken care of immediately.
MARGARET WARNER: I want to get to what the international community can do, but, first, let me just ask you, Nicole. Now, Mugabe, of course, at this food conference in Rome accused the NGOs of funneling money and in other ways helping the opposition party.
Is there anything to those charges? What does that come from?
NICOLE LEE: Well, what's interesting is Mugabe's own claims really point to the real issues that are facing the people of Zimbabwe. Certainly, if you are concerned about the welfare of people in Zimbabwe, you are also going to be concerned about whether or not they're able to vote, whether or not they're able to eat.
Now, CARE has stated, which is the international NGO that has been most targeted by these allegations, they have stated that they have not tried to coerce anyone into political activity, that they've not been handing out flyers, et cetera and so forth, for the MDC.
But, certainly, there is a political element into these economic rights issues and situations in Zimbabwe. They really cannot be divorced.
So while Mugabe is making these allegations, he's actually revealing the more insidious problems that the people on the ground are facing in Zimbabwe and why very well they may not be voting for him this time around.
MARGARET WARNER: So what will be the impact, though? If you're Mugabe, what are you really trying to accomplish here, just intimidate people, demoralize them, or, what, they're too tired and hungry to vote?
CLARENCE LUSANE: Well, very fundamentally, it's trying to hold onto power. Since Mugabe has been in power since 1980, he's basically been protected, either through intimidation or through other favors.
And for the first 20 years of the administration, the country was actually doing quite well, despite whatever was going on politically. But since 2000, the country has deteriorated rapidly, perhaps more than...
MARGARET WARNER: And this was after his land distribution...
CLARENCE LUSANE: After the land chaos reform program that was put in place. And so you have a very complicated situation now that's driven mostly by the machinations of the Mugabe regime, but you also have sanctions.
And what has been the impact of sanctions pretty much around the world is that they tend to hurt the people that they're put in place to help. And so part of what's going on in Zimbabwe is sanctions are also exacerbating the problem of what's going on in terms of the food crisis and the political crisis.
MARGARET WARNER: And we haven't talked about the detention of -- temporary detention of Morgan Tsvangirai today. Is that just part of the same pattern? I mean, why would they detain him and then release him eight or nine hours later?
NICOLE LEE: Well, certainly this is a form of harassment. And it hasn't been just Morgan Tsvangirai. We've seen every major faction of civil society has been affected through these harassing tactics ever since the election in March.
Certainly, trade unionists have been detained. Other civil society members have been detained.
The detention of Morgan Tsvangirai today is very interesting, though, because it really does show a new level of impunity from this government, that Morgan Tsvangirai can be detained -- he is the frontrunner going into the runoff -- and he can be detained without charge for hours and hours on his way to a political rally, clearly shows that this government is not even trying to hide the impunity that they want to impose upon the society.
MARGARET WARNER: And so that raises the question, Professor -- I mean, the State Department denounced today's move. So did several European governments. But what can the international community do?
CLARENCE LUSANE: Well, the pressure has to continue and it has to come from several sources. It has to come from the United Nations. There has to be a very clear sense that this is a global concern.
And it also has to come from African leaders, particularly the African Union and key people, like President Mbeki of South Africa.
They have to be both public and private, putting pressure on Mugabe, to make sure this current election occurs, that the election that's coming up is fair. For example, will international observers be allowed in?
The government has said nobody from any Western government can come in. Will they allow people in from Africa, for example, who they can't accuse of being Western, from South Africa, from Nigeria, from other countries?
MARGARET WARNER: But, just briefly, the neighbors haven't been very assertive here.
NICOLE LEE: I think there has been certainly some quiet diplomacy, but, no, the overt diplomacy that we were looking for has not occurred.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, and we have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.
CLARENCE LUSANE: Thank you.
NICOLE LEE: Thank you.