Zimbabwe: New surge in political violence

HARARE, 31 January 2011 (IRIN) - Elvis Marume, 42, a teacher at a faith-based school in Zimbabwe's Mashonaland West Province, has been threatened with death by alleged elements of the ruling ZANU-PF party's youth militia in response to rumours that he had spoken disparagingly about the country's land reform policy.

"I was sleeping with my family when a gang of about eight youths, whom I know as they reside in a nearby village, knocked on the front door and demanded to see me. Not suspecting anything, I opened the door for them and one of them violently pulled me outside," he told IRIN.

"They showed me what looked like a gun and told me that they were going to kill me because they had received reports that I was teaching my students that the land reform programme was bad because it had created food shortages in the country."

Marume has since applied for a transfer to the capital, Harare, hoping for safety, but there has been an upsurge of political violence in many parts of the country, including Harare, ahead of possible national elections.

President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the country since independence from Britain in 1980, launched the fast-track land reform programme in 2000, which redistributed more than 4,000 white commercial farms to landless black Zimbabweans and set in motion a decade-long economic malaise. In the first quarter of 2009 nearly seven million people - more than half the population - relied on food aid.

Marume reported the incident to the police, but had little faith that the culprits would be arrested. "Having witnessed the violence that took place in 2008, I know what can happen to you once you have been targeted".

In the 2008 elections a presidential runoff was held after the first round of voting failed to produce an outright winner. Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), pulled out of the second round in protest over political violence against his party members.

The election was not recognized as free and fair. The Southern African Development Community, the regional body, intervened, and a government of national unity was formed in February 2009.

But as yet, no date has been set for a national election. Current legislation gives the president the right to call elections, but opposition parties say that doing so unilaterally would defeat the consensus politics of a unity government.

The Southern African Coalition for the Survivors of Torture, a Zimbabwean rights group, said in a recent statement that the incidence of politically motivated violence increased in Harare in January, and alleged that at least one person aligned to the MDC was shot, several were assaulted and many others were threatened, but the police refused to intervene.

ZANU-PF has been collecting signatures in an attempt to put pressure on the European Union (EU) and the US to end economic sanctions targeting senior ZANU-PF figures, including Mugabe and his wife Grace, for alleged gross human rights abuses and electoral fraud.

Philemon Sibanda, 24, an MDC youth activist from Chitungwiza, a satellite town about 30km south of Harare, was recently admitted to a hospital after being attacked by alleged members of ZANU-PF because he refused to sign an anti-sanctions petition that Mugabe's party was circulating.

"They attacked me and my two friends in broad daylight near a shopping centre as we were going to elect a new [MDC] leadership for our district. Two police officers watched as we were being assaulted by more than 20 youths who were dropped off by a ZANU-PF truck," Sibanda told IRIN.

He had reported the incident to the police, but did not expect his attackers would be arrested. He said the MDC had issued instructions that political campaigning should not be carried out openly.

"A lot of my colleagues are saying that if this violence continues, we should arm ourselves and retaliate because we can't be overwhelmed by a party that does not enjoy much support."

Tip of the iceberg

A well-known ZANU-PF activist, popularly known as Stunner, is suspected of being involved in the attack on Sibanda but has denied any responsibility.

"Those MDC youths are cry-babies. When they are beaten up for stealing other people's property, they claim they are being victimized by ZANU-PF," the activist told IRIN. "However, they should be warned that the days of calling for sanctions are over, and we will do anything to stop them."

The MDC has released a statement claiming that scores of their supporters have been attacked by ZANU-PF militias in suburbs around Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, and that villagers in nearby rural areas were being forced to buy ZANU-PF membership cards.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said in a statement that the police had arrested MDC activists and charged them with public violence during skirmishes in Mbare, a high-density suburb of Harare.

"The police alleged that the Mbare residents attacked some ZANU-PF youths with stones, and also threw stones at the police after clashing with some ZANU-PF supporters in the suburb," the ZLHR statement said.

"What you see is the tip of the iceberg. More violence is taking place in rural areas and going unreported," said John Makumbe, a Harare-based political scientist.

"State agents are now part of the organized violence, and there is bound to be a sharp increase in political disturbances in the coming months. If the elections are ... there will be bloodshed," he told IRIN.

The national organ on reconciliation and healing set up by the unity government was "a lame duck that has dismally failed to address the issue of political stability after the 2008 violence," Makumbe said.

Militias were once again beating up political opponents because they knew they would be protected.