MARGARET WARNER: On March 29th, the autocratic ruler of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, seemed on the verge of losing power after more than two decades. His people, buffeted by years of misrule and economic hardship, had gone to the polls and voted against him and his party in large numbers.
The government admitted that its party had lost the parliament. Mugabe’s opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, claimed the presidency, as well. But the government delayed releasing official presidential results for weeks.
Tsvangirai’s supporters protested the delay. There were also reports that Mugabe’s supporters were inflicting violence against opposition members in the countryside.
On May 2nd, the electoral commission released the official numbers affirming Tsvangirai had won, but not by the majority required to avoid a June 27th run-off with Mugabe.
During the ensuing campaign, the violence intensified. Tsvangirai’s supporters were beaten up, arrested, and killed.
ZIMBABWEAN CITIZEN: My house was destroyed to ground level, and all the property was burnt to ashes.
MARGARET WARNER: On June 27th, Tsvangirai withdrew from the run-off, saying his followers were being subjected to an organized campaign of terror.
MORGAN TSVANGIRAI, Leader, Movement for Democratic Change: Robert Mugabe is not the legitimate leader of Zimbabwe. He’s usurping the power of the people. He’s brutalized his own people.
MARGARET WARNER: An independent group reported at least 85 people had been killed.
ROBERT MUGABE, President, Zimbabwe: I, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, do swear that…
MARGARET WARNER: On June 29th, the government announced Mugabe had won with 85 percent of the vote. That same day, he was sworn in for a sixth term.
ROBERT MUGABE: Their votes on the 27th of June can never be rejected by anyone.
MARGARET WARNER: Western leaders denounced the election as a sham, and they’re pushing for economic sanctions and a U.N. embargo against Zimbabwe.
Meanwhile, the opposition reports that political violence is continuing against them.
Generals allegedly played key role
MARGARET WARNER: For more on how Mugabe and his allies turned an apparent defeat into another term in office, we go to Craig Timberg of the Washington Post. On Saturday, he wrote a piece detailing that turnaround.
Timberg, who is the outgoing Southern Africa bureau chief for the Post, wrote his article in collaboration with a Zimbabwean journalist whose name was withheld to protect his identity.
And, Craig, welcome. You wrote really a gripping account of what happened the day after the first vote, when Mugabe met with his top generals and he made a rather startling announcement. Tell us about it.
CRAIG TIMBERG, The Washington Post: He sat down with those generals, and he told them that he had lost the election, which we were beginning to hear around the country, but we didn't realize that they had actually heard it and acknowledged it. And he said, "I'm ready to step down. I'm going to go on TV tomorrow. I'm going to announce to the nation that my time has come and gone."
MARGARET WARNER: And they pushed back?
CRAIG TIMBERG: Yes. The top general in the country essentially said, "You're not going anywhere." And it became clear that keeping Robert Mugabe in power was not just about Robert Mugabe. It was about a whole clique of people around them whose power was dependent on him being the nominal leader of that country.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you say that this General, this General Chiwenga, did give him a choice, but, as you said, leaving office wasn't one of them.
CRAIG TIMBERG: Yes, the choice was essentially either we have a coup and we re-install you in a kind of tanks-in-the-streets sort of way, if you will, or alternatively the military can take over this election, they'll deploy soldiers and officers to the field, and essentially we'll beat up and destroy the opposition, which is what ended up happening.
MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, go to the run-off, but we'll prepare the ground in the interim?
CRAIG TIMBERG: Precisely.
Systematic preparation for runoff
MARGARET WARNER: So how did they go about it?
CRAIG TIMBERG: They deployed 200 senior officers out into the countryside. They built a couple of thousand ruling party bases all over the country.
And the officers organized these ruling party militias, which are basically sort of young thugs and sort of older veterans of the liberation war from the 1970s.
And they got together, and they had lists of opposition activists, and they went through, and they went into their homes, and destroyed them, and tortured them, and beat their mothers, raped their wives, and pretty much obliterated what there was of a very substantial opposition network in Zimbabwe.
MARGARET WARNER: So the 80 to 85 dead doesn't really tell the story at all, in terms of numbers of people who were uprooted?
CRAIG TIMBERG: No, the estimates of the number of people who lost their homes is in the hundreds of thousands. Many thousands were wounded in hospitals. There's still more than 1,000 people actually missing. So I think we may never know the full death toll of what happened there.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, these military commanders had a code name for this operation.
CRAIG TIMBERG: Right. One of my most chilling moments as a journalist is when we saw all the notes, and it said, "CIBD, coercion, intimidation, beating, and displacement."
And then, suddenly, you know, we've been hearing reports of what was happening in the countryside for a long time, but to actually know the way they described it to one another was just incredibly chilling.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, who was really in charge of this? I mean, you say it was the top military commanders. How many people were in on it? For instance, the ruling party elite, some are members of parliament and are members of Mugabe's government, were they in on this?
CRAIG TIMBERG: Yes, it's sort of circles within circles, if you know what I mean. There's Mugabe. There's the sort of the generals and the head of the intelligence agencies. They're sort of the core people.
And then there's a slightly larger ring of what they call the politburo, which are the people around the ruling party, and all those people knew about it. They debated it. I mean, I've seen notes of those debates.
And, again, it's terrifying the way they would describe, you know, do we keep beating these people up, or is that maybe going to backfire? Rarely was there a kind of moment where they said, "Well, this is inhumane. We can't possibly continue doing this."
Chasm between rulers, people
MARGARET WARNER: So from the get-go, there was this assumption that this was a perfectly legitimate way to proceed?
CRAIG TIMBERG: I'm not sure the question of legitimacy or moral legitimacy ever entered the conversation. It was about, how do we hold onto power? That was all it was about.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what does this episode tell you and should tell us about who's really running that country?
CRAIG TIMBERG: For me, the clearest lesson I took away from this reporting was that it's not about Mugabe. And we tend to fixate on that in the press, and because he's a colorful figure, and he's easily demonized.
But, in fact, he represents a group of people. And if -- he's 84 years old -- he dies tomorrow or the day after that, someone worse could easily take charge over there.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, it's famously known that it's very difficult for Western reporters to operate in Zimbabwe. You're denied entry, right, if you even ask for a journalist visa. How did you go about reporting this? How much can you tell us about this?
CRAIG TIMBERG: I can't tell you a ton, but the basic gist of what the foreign correspondents do, we go in on a tourist visa. You lay as low as you possibly can. You work with local people as much as you can.
Obviously, as a white Westerner, there's lots of places you can't easily go or you immediately attract attention. And so we're dependent often on the kindness of strangers, and people who can work, and the person who worked with me on this was just extraordinary, as far as getting stuff that I probably could never have gotten on my own.
MARGARET WARNER: But then the people who talked to you, the people who shared their notes, I mean, surely -- the stories is quite detailed. I mean, how easy is it going to be for the Mugabe high command to trace this stuff back to whoever talked to you?
CRAIG TIMBERG: Yes. I'm, frankly, terrified about that. And we've tried to do what we can to make people as safe as possible, but there's always a balance.
I mean, there's no point in being in there if you can't report a version of the truth that people believe. So we had long, painful debates about how much we revealed about our sources and the people we were working with, but, ultimately, if the material is not credible, there's no point in publishing it.
Sides begin talking, future unknown
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, let's get back to Zimbabwe and make sense of us of two conflicting stories we're hearing just today. On the one hand, Tsvangirai's and Mugabe's supporters are down in South Africa for some kind of mediated talks about a national unity government. On the other hand, the opposition is saying, "Our people are still being subjected to terror and violence out in the countryside."
What's going on?
CRAIG TIMBERG: Well, both those things are going on. I mean, just more than 20 people have been killed just since the election.
It's clear that, at least in some parts of the country, they're still working through the list of opposition activists and wiping them out and wiping out their families.
At the same time, we've entered a phase in the political story where we sort of have -- what you might think of as talks about talks. The opposition has come in and said, "We'll begin negotiating if you stop killing our members." And that may be a demand that never will be met.
And it's also not clear to me that this is a regime that's prepared to give up power under any circumstances. So negotiations are good, but they're only good if both sides come to them sincerely. And it's not clear to me that that's the case yet.
MARGARET WARNER: And as we reported, of course, the United States, Great Britain, many other countries are behind a push at the U.N. to impose tougher sanctions on Zimbabwe. From your reporting about this regime, do you think any of those measures will make a dent, I mean, on the people you reported about?
CRAIG TIMBERG: Yes, look, these are guys who have a lot to lose, right? They have money, and power, and prestige in a society that's utterly dependent on the perpetuation of this government.
So what would it take for them to give that up? I don't know. A lot of these guys would end up in war crimes tribunals at this point. So that's a real disincentive.
In terms of levers, I think the region -- I think the South Africans and the countries around them have much more leverage than the international community does. I mean, let's face it: We're not going to invade. The U.N. is not going to send in peacekeeping troops against the rule of that government.
So in terms of what you can really do, I think it's really up to the neighbors of that country and what they're willing to do.
MARGARET WARNER: Craig Timberg of the Washington Post, some great reporting. Thank you.
CRAIG TIMBERG: Thank you, Margaret.