THERE has been a row during the last fortnight about whether the government should ban the English cricket team from travelling to Zimbabwe for next month’s World Cup. But the cricket has obscured the real issue. And that is whether Britain and the world community will intervene to stop Robert Mugabe from torturing, terrorising and starving to death the people of Zimbabwe.
I spent two weeks in this beautiful country shortly before Christmas, making a film for Channel 4. We travelled illegally. Dr Mugabe does not want the world to know what he is up to, so he has banned foreign journalists. We posed as golfers, using secret cameras.
We learnt that the famine that looms for eight million Zimbabwean citizens – more than half the population – is no natural disaster. There is indeed a drought. But Mugabe, in an act of pure evil, has taken advantage of this for his own loathsome purposes. Elderly and unpopular, he has one weapon left in his battle to hang on to power: the ability to use the power of the state to starve and terrorise.
Everyone we met had been physically attacked by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF ruling party at some stage. The guide who took us round had a recent scar on his face. We asked him how he had come by it. He explained that he had been canvassing in a rural area before the assembly elections of 2000. One night he and his friends were sleeping in huts outside a village. They were petrol-bombed, so they ran for their lives to escape. But outside Zanu-PF were waiting. He was tripped up. As he fell to the ground he turned his head. It was as well that he did: his assailant was bringing down an iron bar on to the back of his head. It slewed into the side of his face rather than crashing into his skull. Our guide reacted fast: he threw sand into the eyes of his attacker and ran away.
But his troubles were still not over. He checked into the hospital with a gaping wound from his cheekbone to the top of his mouth, only to be told that he needed police authority to be treated. So he went to the police, who charged him with assault and locked him in a cell for 48 hours, his gaping wound festering all the while and untreated.
The point about this horrible little story is that it was routine, barely a matter for comment. Zanu-PF violence and political murder have become a routine part of the culture of Zimbabwean politics, rather as the television chat show sets the tone in Britain. There have been four assassination attempts on Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change opposition, over the past two years. Two of his MPs have died suspiciously in the past 12 months while a third, Mtoliki Sibanda, is now in hiding after two attempts on his life. All MPs are followed by the secret police and subject to threats. When I met Joel Gabbuza, the MP for Binga in the rural north of the country where the famine is at its worst, I asked him whether he had been terrorised. He said he was relaxed during the day but ‘when you are asleep at night you are not sure who is kicking around the house’. He told how, after this summer’s presidential elections, his little family grocery store was wrecked: ‘they destroyed all the windows, cut off the door, got inside the shop, cut down all the shelves and smashed all the goods that were inside the shop’.
According to Amnesty, some 58 people were victims of state-approved killing in the first nine months of last year – rather more than one a week. That is almost certainly a gross underestimate. Most of the murders are local, and do not come to national attention. The following episode gives some grounds for believing this to be the case.
Upon reaching Bulawayo, the second largest town in Zimbabwe and an MDC stronghold, we sought to maintain our cover as golfers. The Bulawayo golf club turned out to be frequented mainly by white businessmen from what remains of the town’s once prosperous commercial centre. We had some difficulty getting on to the course because of a tournament. But what we learnt when we finally got to play showed what makes Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe so special. Two weeks before there had been a blockage in the sewage system by the 17th hole. It was clogged up with dead bodies: they showed signs of torture and had been decapitated. The police arrived to collect the dead bodies, but otherwise showed no interest in how they came to be on the course. The incident was not reported in the press. The bodies were found at about the same time as the Insiza by-election, when there were a number of unaccountable abductions.
This kind of state terrorism has been going on in Zimbabwe for years, though in recent times it has grown much worse. But the prospect of famine has handed Mugabe a new weapon, which opens for him the possibility of a move towards genocide.
Maize is the national subsistence food. Once it has been ground down in the mills, it is turned into a porridge-like substance known to the people as mealie meal. Mealie meal is as ubiquitous, and as essential for the nourishment of the population at large, as the potato was in Ireland before the great famine of 1846-9. Mugabe has seized control of the supply of mealie meal. He insists that it is marketed and distributed through the state-owned Grain Marketing Board, which he can oversee and dominate.
I went to look at the imposing GMB silos in Bulawayo. From there maize is sent to approved millers, all under Zanu-PF control. These millers then convert the maize to mealie meal, and sell it on to local ward councillors at a wholesale price of ZM$240 per 20 kilos. These councillors organise a distribution point in each ward, selling it on to local people at a 20 per cent mark-up, or ZM$300.
This process is abused at every stage. The millers themselves are threatened by freelance Zanu-PF thugs, who force them to sell the mealie meal at cost, and then make huge profits by taking it on to the open market. While I was in Zimbabwe the thugs were selling mealie meal at ZM$1,000 or more per 20 kilos. In most of the country, the only way to get hold of mealie meal is by paying these prices, far beyond the pockets of ordinary people. When we were in the Beitbridge area of southern Zimbabwe there was general starvation. But one little shop, the River Ranch Store, was always full of mealie meal. It belonged to Kembo Mohadi, the Beitbridge MP and Robert Mugabe’s home affairs minister. We went to have a look.
It was a menacing place, full of young Zanu-PF thugs drinking beer. But the storeroom was loaded with perhaps 500 bulging sacks of mealie meal at ZM$900 apiece. I was told that the minister concerned educated his daughter at a private school in Australia. This was the reverse side of the starvation: a small group of gangster ministers making a fortune out of the horror.
But this kind of corruption is almost a side issue. The main point is how the state marketing of grain is used as a mechanism to punish Mugabe’s political opponents. Mugabe has forbidden any private movement of maize. Zanu-PF thugs set up roadblocks on all main routes. Anyone carrying maize will have it confiscated. Vehicles travelling from Beitbridge in the south to Victoria Falls in the north are frequently stopped and searched as much as a dozen times in the course of the journey. The purpose is to prevent food reaching opposition areas. In Beitbridge, notwithstanding widespread starvation in the surrounding district, the government has impounded a 132 metric tonnes of maize delivery brought in by the MDC. It now sits rotting in a compound, surrounded by barbed wire.
Only one method of food distribution remains – at least nominally – outside the control of President Mugabe. This is through non-governmental-organisations (NGOs), and about 20 of these operate in Zimbabwe. Some NGOs find it better just to co-operate with Zanu-PF. But NGOs which insist on overseeing distribution are often prevented from operating. T
his was the fate of both the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and Save the Children while we were in Binga in early November. Both were accused outrageously of collaborating with the MDC. Travelling through remote areas in the Binga district, we were told again and again by starving people that no maize had reached them from NGOs for months
President Mugabe is a terrorist. His aim from the start of his rule 23 years ago has been to eliminate opposition through violence. On several occasions he has come close to achieving this goal. The first was in the late 1980s, in the wake of the Gukurabnundi campaign in Matabeleland. Mugabe used his notorious 5 Brigade, trained by North Korean instructors, to suppress internal dissent. Perhaps 20,000 were massacred, with not a word of criticism from Britain and the outside world.
We are moving towards a repeat of the tragedy of the early 1980s, only on a colossal scale. Finding out about Zimbabwe today is uncannily like reading about Nazi Germany during the 1930s. There is the same steady erosion of the independence of the army, the civil service and the institutions of the state. With both Zanu-PF and the Nazis, there is also the parallel party organisation to be considered. This runs alongside, but always overrides, formal state institutions like the police. Hitler’s brown shirts have their own very precise counterpart in Mugabe’s Youth Leagues or, as they are colloquially known, Green Bombers.
There is still a tendency to attribute state-sanctioned illegality, of which land seizures form a tiny proportion, to so-called war veterans. The real thugs are the young men (and some women) now being trained in the youth camps. This is a sinister and horrible phenomenon. As I understand it they are a development only of the last 18 months at most.
You can see these Green Bombers in every town. In their early twenties, they wear heavy boots and combat fatigues. They are responsible for a growing proportion of the killings, rapes and gratuitous violence aimed at the MDC opposition. They are on the road blocks and control the illegal supply of mealie meal, making giant profits
Effectively the Green Bombers form a private Zanu-PF army. Young people wishing to attend higher education are required to spend six months in youth camps. There they are indoctrinated in Zanu-PF ideology and taught to hate the MDC. They learn the techniques of state terrorism. They get access to food, status, money and (because rape goes unpunished) sex. They are told to inform against their parents and punished if they fail to do so.
Mugabe is directing his enmity inwards, against his own people, while in the 1930s Nazi aggression went outwards as well. Members of the government are beginning to talk the language of ethnic cleansing. This is what Didymus Mutasa, Zanu-PF organising secretary and a member of Robert Mugabe’s politburo, said last August: ‘We would be better off with only six million people, with our own people who support the liberation struggle. We don’t want all these extra people.’ The population of Zimbabwe is now about 12 million.
Already a mild form of genocide is under way: the constant attrition of state murder, the deliberate starvation of great masses of the people, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of farm workers to remote and inhospitable camps. The ingredients are nearly all in place for something altogether larger and more tragic. But Britain regards herself as powerless to act, while the rest of the world – preoccupied with Iraq – could not care less.
This article is an edited version of a pamphlet on Zimbabwe, published today by the Centre for Policy Studies. Peter Oborne’s film, Mugabe’s Secret Famine, can be seen on Channel 4 at 8 p.m. this Sunday.