Zimbabwe: Traditional leaders Mugabe's trump card

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Village chiefs loyal to Mugabe said to be pressuring members of their communities to vote for him in upcoming leadership election.

By Yamikani Mwando in Bulawayo

As the June 27 presidential run-off approaches, opposition officials say the ruling party, ZANU-PF, is targeting village chiefs in an effort to reverse the losses suffered by President Robert Mugabe in the first round of voting in areas previously considered his stronghold.

Abednico Bhebhe, deputy spokesperson for the Movement of Democratic Change, MDC, faction led by Arthur Mutambara, said the politicisation of villagers by headmen is in full swing ahead of the crucial second round.

'They are calling meetings disguised as genuine village gatherings with nothing to do with politics. But once the villagers congregate, the gospel of ZANU-PF is preached,' Bhebhe told IWPR.

In Zimbabwe - as elsewhere in Africa - traditional leaders have always commanded profound respect among rural communities, where they preside over everything from the resolution of disputes to the sharing of resources.

Chiefs and headmen are still revered within some political circles for having worked with nationalists and freedom fighters in the 1960s and 1970s during the bloody and protracted guerrilla war against Ian Smith's white minority government.

However, critics and analysts say that with the emergence of a powerful opposition in 2000 the traditional leaders have been blatantly threatened, bribed, politicised and used by ZANU-PF to rally villagers behind the party.

Traditional leaders receive a generous monthly government stipend as part of Mugabe's brazen strategy to keep them at his beck and call. In the run-up to the March 29 general and presidential elections, they were also recipients of the bulk of the 200 off-road vehicles doled out by the Mugabe government.

But bribery is not the only method of inducement used by Mugabe's supporters.

In its regular pre-election monitoring updates before the March 29 poll, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, ZESN, observed that chiefs who had given the MDC permission to hold campaign rallies in their locality had been harassed by state security agents, who threatened to withdraw government support if they continued to do so.

These rural communities, which, according to aid agencies, are bearing the brunt of the country's economic decline, constitute a bloc that could swing the vote in favour of the opposition.

The MDC, formerly Zimbabwe's major opposition political party, but, since the March elections, now the majority party in parliament, claims that in remote rural areas, ravaged by hunger and poor harvests and far from the probing eyes of the outside world, freedom of choice has been infringed, with villagers too frightened to vote for the candidates of their choice.

According to Bhebhe, those villagers who have shunned the recent village meetings, recognising them as ZANU-PF gatherings, have suffered dire consequences.

During a recent weekend, in Nkayi, a rural outpost in Matebeleland North, 'a young man was battered by ZANU-PF supporters after he ignored a meeting that had been called by the headman. They accused him of being an MDC sympathiser', said Bhebhe.

Traditional leaders, said Bhebhe, are also accused of failing to use their powers to quell the attacks on opposition party supporters.

At the same time, human rights groups, aid agencies and the MDC allege that traditional leaders are denying starving villagers food aid, accusing them of working against government efforts because they support parties other than ZANU-PF.

In previous elections, chiefs and headmen were accused by groups involved in monitoring and observing elections, including the ZESN, of instructing villagers how to vote and who to vote for, claiming they would know who had voted against Mugabe.

This week, an old woman from a rural homestead in Mashonaland East, one of the hotbeds of post-election violence that human rights groups say has claimed over 60 lives, related how villagers from her area had been told by local leaders that the MDC wanted to return the country to whites.

'Did you not hear that as soon the whites heard [MDC leader Morgan] Tsvangirai had won [the parliamentary elections], they began celebrating and returning to their farms,' the old lady asked, expressing her surprise that people in urban areas had not heard this news.

Yamikani Mwando is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.