Generals continue to make life difficult for Robert Mugabe

JOHANNESBURG – Military commanders in Zimbabwe have pressured President Robert Mugabe to shield them from prosecution for a violent crackdown on his political foes this year, and his response now threatens to derail a power-sharing deal that was supposed to halt the country's dizzying downward economic spiral.

Mugabe’s efforts to placate his generals, as well as senior politicians in his party who are disgruntled about their loss of clout, culminated in his decision last week to unilaterally claim control of ministries that have been pivotal to his 28 years of unbroken political dominance and are now critical to protecting his senior generals from the risk of being charged criminally.

Mugabe, 84, signed an agreement a month ago to share power with the political opposition after a brutal election season in which more than 100 opposition supporters were murdered and thousands were beaten – a campaign of violence that senior officials in Mugabe’s party said was organized by the military.

Since the deal was signed, the three senior Zimbabwean military commanders have worried about their fate in a government that includes the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister – a man they deeply distrust and who was himself viciously beaten by the police last year, three officials close to Mugabe said in recent interviews.

In addition to hanging on to control of the armed forces, Mugabe’s insistence on retaining the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees a police force that could potentially investigate and arrest those who committed acts of political violence, now threatens to bring a complete collapse of the peace deal. Such an outcome would likely entrench Zimbabwe’s status as an international pariah, deepen hunger and poverty, and spark a fresh exodus of refugees into neighboring countries.

Tsvangirai told thousands of cheering supporters in Harare on Sunday that he would not be part of a deal that did not give his party control of the Home and Finance ministries; he denounced what he termed Mugabe’s power grab.

Thabo Mbeki, the ousted president of South Africa who brokered the power-sharing deal, met Tuesday with Mugabe and Tsvangirai to try to rescue the pact. But Mbeki’s own clout is now greatly diminished by his precipitous fall from power last month as leader of South Africa, the regional power.

The Zimbabwean information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, disputed the idea that the military commanders feared prosecution.

"President Mugabe is commander in chief of the armed forces and head of the security ministries," he said. "There is no one guilty here. No one is talking about arrests of anyone. The army is apolitical."

But according to other senior officials in the government, just days after Mugabe and Tsvangirai signed their deal, Mugabe huddled with the inner circle of generals and politicians who run the country with him, known as the Joint Operations Command.

His military commanders told him they feared the that deal would leave them vulnerable to prosecution for their role in organizing a crackdown before the June runoff election – a crackdown that prompted Tsvangirai to quit the race days before it was held, saying none of his supporters should have to die to vote for him.

"They said it was too risky to leave the repercussions of such an apparently brutal operation to chance," said a Mugabe confidante who, like two others who attended the meeting, described what transpired on condition they not be identified because the deliberations were secret.

Tsvangirai himself faces pressures from his own party’s workers and supporters, many of whom paid a high price for their political views, measurable in burned homes, broken bones and flayed bodies. At a minimum, opposition officials say, the party’s rank and file want a police force that will protect them from physical abuse – and many also want justice for the wrongs done them.

The passions within Tsvangirai’s own party were on display when Mugabe inaugurated Parliament on Aug. 26. Opposition members of Parliament, many of whom had been in hiding for months, cried out over and over, "You are a murderer!"

Mugabe’s hands trembled.

At the rally Sunday, Tsvangirai sought to reassure Mugabe’s party that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change would not seek retribution. "The guilty are afraid, but the MDC means well," he said.

Still, the generals are correct that the 30-page agreement signed with great fanfare Sept. 15 includes no explicit promise of immunity for political crimes.

The seeds of the current impasse were planted on the day the deal was signed. Tsvangirai put his name to the document, though he had not yet reached an understanding about how he and Mugabe would divide the ministries, an opposition official close to the confidential talks said.

Mbeki convinced Tsvangirai that agreeing to a framework for governing would build confidence. "It was to tie Morgan’s and Mugabe’s hands together and their feet together until they realized they have to cohabitate," the opposition official said.

The next day, Mugabe came under withering fire at a meeting of his party’s politburo for giving up too much authority, politburo members said.

The deal was unpopular with both the main factions in the party, one led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, 62, a former security chief who ran Mugabe’s runoff election campaign, the other by the Mujurus – Joice, 53, one of Mr. Mugabe’s two vice presidents, and her husband, Solomon, 59, a former army commander. The Mujuru camp complained that Mrs. Mujuru, the vice president, had been reduced to a figurehead in the deal.

Both factions saw the deal as threatening their control over the patronage they need to win elections, according to a senior official close to Mugabe. And both were angling for the most powerful jobs from a shrinking pie of ministerial appointments. Under the deal, Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, was entitled to only 15 of the 31 ministries. Politburo members loyal to Mujuru accused Mugabe of planning to reward Mnangagwa with the best portfolios as a reward for leading the war-like campaign for Mugabe’s reelection in the June 27 runoff.

Mugabe, in turn, blamed factionalism within the party and the failure of party leaders to campaign vigorously for him for the fact that Tsvangirai won more votes than he did in the March general election – sentiments he reiterated the next day, Sept. 17, at a meeting of the party’s Central Committee.

"If only we had not blundered in the harmonized election, we would not be facing all this humiliation," the state-owned newspaper, The Herald, quoted him as saying, even as he insisted, "We remain in the driving seat."

Mugabe got another earful when he met Sept. 18 with the Joint Operations Command.

Opinion within the JOC was divided on the deal, with the commissioners of police and prisons, Augustine Chihuri and Parardzai Zimhondi, and the director general of the Central Intelligence Organization, Happyton Bonyongwe, predicting that the opposition would not want to violate the spirit of the deal by seeking prosecutions, according to officials who were present.

A senior official close to Mugabe who attended the meeting explained that the police were not so worried about prosecution because their vulnerability was more one of negligence – that they did not stop the violence or arrest its perpetrators.

The prison services had not participated directly in the violence. And the intelligence agents are in plain clothes and less recognizable.

"The CIO agents are faceless," the official said. "The problem is with the uniformed forces because their names are out there with the people."

The three top military commanders, Constantine Chiwenga, Philip Sibanda and Perence Shiri, said they worried that there was no explicit guarantee of immunity for them or others under their command.

Officials at the JOC meeting said the military brass had reason to be concerned that there was simply too much evidence of their role. The list of the 200 officers they deployed across the country to oversee the intimidation and beating of opposition supporters – complete with names, ranks and districts where each one was posted – leaked to journalists and civic groups.

"The real fear is with the army generals because their people ran the run-off campaign," one official said.

Two journalists contributed reporting from Harare, Zimbabwe. The Herald Tribune