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Mugabe's Mess

Harare, Zimbabwe

Every night at around 9 p.m., in the weeks leading up to last month’s presidential election, Simon heard the sound of drums coming from the woods surrounding his paprika farm. The dull thuds percolated in a four-four beat. "B-boom," "B-boom," "B-boom"; then silence. A cry would go up. "Shall we kill the whites?" came the chorus of two-dozen "war vets"--the euphemism for veterans of Zimbabwe's independence struggle who now serve as a personal militia for the country's ruler, Robert Mugabe. "Let's ask Mugabe!" Then the drums began again. The final round of voting was around the corner, and electioneering had turned ugly.

On March 29, Mugabe had lost the first round of the presidential election--his first loss since Zimbabwe's independence in 1980. Upon hearing of his defeat, a shocked Mugabe launched Operation Mavhoterapapi ("Who did you vote for?") in a bid to browbeat citizens into voting for him in the June 27 run-off with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

"I would go at night to the edge of our maize field and listen to them chanting, wondering what was going to happen to us--if they would enter the homestead," said Simon, 25, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retribution. Then one night in mid-June--as Mugabe’s chances of winning the run-off began to look precariously low--the vets finally plowed onto the 100-acre farm, dragging laborers from their huts at night and forcing them to attend impromptu pungwes, compulsory government-loyalty sessions. A simple choice was laid down by the war vets' leader: "Pledge allegiance to Mugabe or we will burn down your house."

Simon and his family were able to escape unscathed via a back road as soon as they saw the vets, many drunk off the local maize-brew chibuku, walk up the red-clay drive and onto the farm they'd owned for two generations. But many Zimbabweans had not been so lucky. At least 85 people, mainly supporters of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), were killed in the violence that ravaged southern Africa's former breadbasket in the run-up to the June 27 vote. Thousands more were injured as Mugabe's notorious "Green Bomber" militia--composed of indoctrinated rural youths--rampaged across the country's undulating north-eastern provinces.

Election day was a mournful affair along Harare's acacia-lined avenues. In the capital's heaving Mbare township, the oldest in the city, snaking lines of voters waited patiently in the winter sun outside the polling stations. Turnout, despite official bombast, was dismal. One regional observer in the nearby Rugare constituency, standing idly next to his Toyota 4x4, said dozens had voted at his station. Still, despite the widespread apathy and a last-minute boycott by Tsvangirai--who cited political violence as his reason--the requisite message was imbibed by rural and urban dwellers alike, enough of whom showed up to propel Mugabe to victory.

Inauguration was hasty the following Sunday. In contrast to the month of waiting before Zimbabwe's electoral commission released the results of March's election, Mugabe was sworn in by 4 p.m.--a mere 48 hours after winning with an improbable 85 percent of the vote. Harare stood still. People lounged by the roadside or, if they had wages, spent it in the country’s bootleg shabeen bars. Even the country's ubiquitous money changers melted away. The silence was only broken by the government's Chinese-made Mig jets zig-zagging across a cloudless sky.

Even after the poll, there were reports of pro-government supporters beating up anyone who didn't have their little finger dyed red or purple, the sign of voting. A mood of intimidation still hung in the air. One youth sporting a pro-Mugabe t-shirt close to Harare's dilapidated polytechnic college said that he would be joining in the victory celebrations "for security." Fear of the Central Intelligence Organization--Mugabe's Gestapo--permeates almost every sector of society. Even the country's indomitable band of independent journalists moves with caution. One friend who writes for Harare's excellent Financial Gazette covered his mouth while talking in a local fast-food joint. General shop closures meant the greasy Chicken Hut restaurant was the only choice for dinner the evening after the election--enjoyed with warm Cokes and no ketchup due to nationwide commodity shortages: "I would take you back to my house to eat but I don't want my neighbors asking questions about 'who was that murungu [white man]'?'"

With Mugabe embarking on another five-year term, a general resignation has set in as people return to the Sisyphean task of trying to pay rent and buy food amidst 9,000,000-percent inflation. Enterprising hustlers have taken to the street at night selling contraband cooking oil and milk. For years, analysts have predicted that the economy will simply collapse--while Zimbabweans lumber on like war-weary soldiers. People ask, "How much longer?"

The surge of optimism that accompanied the MDC's March win has been ruthlessly crushed by the president. Mugabe looked shaky in the poll's aftermath, refusing to give his customary anti-Western speeches and shrinking away from public appearances. But the old swagger is back. His spokesman George Charamba recently told critics to "go hang."

Mugabe is fast losing his international cache. For the first time ever in Zimbabwe, the regional SADC observer group declared Mugabe's election was not "free and fair"--an act unthinkable but six months ago. Neighboring Botswana has taken the bold step of not recognizing him as president. And even South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) party has successful pressured the Old Man--as Mugabe is now known pejoratively in Zimbabwe--to publicly agree to talks with the MDC for the first time.

But these international developments have yet to trickle down to most Zimbabweans. Earlier this month, Simon returned to his farm to find his livestock and equipment intact. "We were fortunate," he says. "I hope the worst is over, but I'm worried for the future." Two of his neighbors were less lucky: Mike Campbell and Ben Freeth, his son-in-law, also had their farms invaded. They were due to go to the regional Southern Africa court in mid-July in Namibia to appeal against the government's seizure of their farm a few years ago. As a result, the war vets abducted them, pummeling their bodies and dumping them on a rural dirt road. "It was definitely political," Simon says. "You've got to keep a low profile."

In the last week, a strange tranquility has returned to the country, belying a queasy anticipation of what may come. People are fearful of what Mugabe might do next, but seem more concerned with the trade sanctions currently being threatened by the international community. The economy continues to burrow underground; a new currency reissue is expected soon to knock the zeros off increasingly surreal banknotes. While the outside world debates what to do about its future, Zimbabwe is more uncertain than ever.

Christopher Thompson is a freelance journalist based in Paris. He was a correspondent for Reuters in southern Africa from 2006 to 2007.

By Christopher Thompson