"Pledge Allegiance to Mugabe or We Will Burn Down Your House."


With the coming and going Robert Mugabe's illegal, murderous, and fraudulent election triumph, the tragedy of Zimbabwe had slipped off the front pages. That's too bad. Christopher Thompson has a first-hand account over at the New Republic of Mugabe's campaign of thuggery.

"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.

Reporters from the UK's Channel 4 cornered Mugabe at the African Union summit in Egypt. They deployed an interesting tactic; refusing to treat Mugabe like a head of state, they asked "how it felt to steal an election" as his goons pushed and slapped them away.

When you stop being angry about this, read this: a column in a Ugandan newspaper by Andrew Mwenda, asking why people like, well, me, care about Zimbabwe anyway.

Mugabe is destroying the economy of Zimbabwe and terrorizing its citizens. But he has not threatened his neighbours like Amin did when he invaded Tanzania. Zairean dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, would have died in power had he not financed rebels opposed to Rwanda.

Why then are we hearing calls for freer and fairer elections in Zimbabwe? There was hardly a whisper when Mugabe's crack units butchered the Ndebele in the mid 1980s. Many people think the current noise is racial because Mugabe has dispossessed white farmers. Actually, it has a lot to do with social capital. White farmers had networks and contacts with influential groups and individuals in Western capitals. They have successfully used this to mobilize international opinion against the Zimbabwean patriarch. The lesson for opposition movements in Africa is that they need to build such networks and contacts in order to have voice.

I think that's true, on both counts, but it wasn't just that Mugabe was attacking whites when world opinion  started to swing against him. It was that Zimbabwe was falling so far. The Congo was a basket case that got worse during Mobutu's reign; Zimbabwe was, until Mugabe really started bringing the hammer down in 1999 and 2000, a wealthy African democracy.

Of course, something that might change in six months is the installation of an American president with continental African roots, who has a habit of speaking out in and on African issues in ways that reverberate.