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Report Exposes Violent Tactics in Mugabe Campaign


And now to some important international news. Normally at this time we dig into the pages of the Washington Post Sunday Magazine for interesting stories about the way we live now. But today we're going to turn to an extraordinary piece by Post Foreign Correspondent Craig Timberg that documents how the campaign of violence aimed at Zimbabwe's leading opposition party and its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was directed by officials at the highest levels of Zimbabwe's government with the knowledge and participation of President Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe was just sworn in for his sixth term as president last Sunday after a runoff election which was boycotted by the opposition because of the violence. Craig Timberg is with us now by phone from Johannesburg. Thank you so much for joining us, Craig.


Mr. CRAIG TIMBERG (Foreign Correspondent, Washington Post): Oh, thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Craig, the piece is extraordinary because it is based on notes that were actually taken at the meetings where the violence was planned. Is there anything you can tell us about how these notes were obtained?

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah, not a lot. I was working very closely with a Zimbabwean colleague and while I am safe out of the country, you know, he and his family remain in some degree of peril. So probably the less said the better.

But the important thing is that we had notes and we had a number of direct, firsthand accounts of people who were in the meetings when essentially the generals told President Mugabe that he was not going to lose anything, that he was going to stay in power and that they were going to take control and win this runoff election.

MARTIN: The piece says that Mugabe privately acknowledged defeat in the March election. In fact, the opposition has maintained all along that the opposition, The Movement for Democratic Change, did win, and many international observers agree with it. The piece says that Mugabe actually knew this. He acknowledged this and was prepared to step down. Why didn't he?


Mr. TIMBERG: He didn't because his top generals said no. I mean, Mugabe is - you know, an 84-year-old man and I think his - you know, his place in history, in its way, is kind of secure. But all of these people who are at the next level in a sense have a lot more to lose. Their power, their money, their place in society, and I think that they were not going to give up power merely because people voted against them.

MARTIN: What exactly is the relationship between Mugabe and the security forces? Your piece says that General Constantine Chiwenga says the choice was not Mugabe's alone to make. Is there some suggestion that Mr. Mugabe is perhaps afraid of his own security apparatus?

Mr. TIMBERG: You know, there's something called the Joint Operations Command in Zimbabwe, which is made up of the head of the military, the prison, the intelligence service and the air force, and includes the president. And we sort of long-known dimly that that organization in its way really ran Zimbabwe, but it generally keeps a low profile except when things get really hectic. And so it was when there was a possibility that the regime would lose power that suddenly this truly militarized organization stepped forward and asserted itself in a way that we hadn't seen in many years.

MARTIN: You're saying this plan of - that this planned attack on the opposition actually had a code name. Tell me, what was the code name and what did it involve?

Mr. TIMBERG: The code name was CIBD which stood for Coercion, Intimidation, Beating and Displacement, and it's hard to imagine a better description of what happened in that country. They went out with lists and they killed and tortured and beat and intimidated and coerced and drove people from their homes by the thousands upon thousands.

MARTIN: Does - do the notes that you were able to obtain show any disagreement with this?

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah. It was actually very interesting. The Vice President, Joice Mujuru, who I'd never thought of as a particularly sentimental or soft-hearted character, did express some misgivings in some of these private meetings, as did at least one of the other quite senior generals who suggested first of all, you know, maybe that the violence had gone too far and also that it might backfire. But in the end the hardliners prevailed.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of - do the meetings suggest any sense of what they thought their end game would be? I mean, clearly the regime has show that it's impervious to external criticism so far, but is there acknowledgement of that? Concern about that? I mean, do they think that the international community is just going to turn a blind eye? Ignore it?

Mr. TIMBERG: The reporting for that story doesn't illuminate that question an awful lot. The moment in time where we had insight suddenly was in the first weeks, really, after they had lost that initial runoff election. And their only priority seemed to be hanging - you know, reestablishing their power.

Now the much bigger and more complicated question is how do you keep power in a country where you have nine million percent inflation as they now have, where your economy is utterly collapsed, where your skilled workers are going over the borders and where you've been isolated internationally? And I think that's the really interesting question now.

So Robert Mugabe and his ruling clique, they are now back in charge but how do they make that place back into a country that anybody would want to be in charge of? And that's, you know, that to me is the - is a much more difficult question to answer.

MARTIN: The story indicates that the - it was based on the written notes of one participant but it was corroborated by other people with direct knowledge of the meeting. I don't know how you interpret this, but it suggests to me that someone wants the world to know that this occurred. Do you see any sign within the regime that there's a crack within the regime? That there's any sign of negotiation with the opposition? That's there's any sign of acknowledgement of the international outcry that has ensued?

Mr. TIMBERG: I would agree with you that it's clearly a divided regime and it has been for some time. I mean, one of the effects of having a single leader in power for 28 years is that everyone on the next level who imagines he or she might make a pretty good president, at various points begins to agitate to kind of position themselves, and that has been going on for quite some time in Zimbabwe. And in fact, one of the reasons why they lost so badly back in the first round in March was that it was a party divided unto itself.

They do seem to have organized themselves better for the second round. They do seem a bit more unified but I think there are very deep and fundamental cracks about how to move forward in that regime. There's also, clearly, a willingness to negotiate with the opposition. What's not at all clear is if there's a willingness to negotiate away power as opposed to negotiate, sort of, specific things, you know, maybe negotiate away the finance ministry or they negotiate away a particular event. But I don't see these - I don't see these characters negotiating themselves out of power.

I think that's the lesson we really get out of the last few months, is that they are willing to go, essentially, to any extent, use any means to keep the power in their own hands.

MARTIN: And as of course you know that South Africa is playing a pivotal role, not only on Zimbabwe's border but South African's President Thabo Mbeki has sort of been tasked on behalf of the region with negotiating with the regime. He's been heavily criticized for being too passive and for, some would say, enabling Mr. Mugabe and his actions in the campaign. What - can you bring us up to date on what actions are occurring now? It is my understanding that Mr. Mbeki met with Mr. Mugabe over the weekend. Was there any results of these discussions which you can tell us?

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah, not really because the opposition boycotted them and so here's the problem, that the opposition in Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai and others, are convinced that Thabo Mbeki, first of all, doesn't respect them and that Mr. Mbeki has a - kind of an affection and supportedness for President Mugabe that is entirely outside. And in fact, I mean, they would portray Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, as the principle supporter and enabler of the Zimbabwe regime.

So given that, whether or not that's true or fair, the fact that the opposition feels that way so strongly makes Mbeki not an ideal mediator. And so what's sort of the subterranean thing that's going on right now is that the opposition is trying very hard right now to get support around the region for having a broader, sort of, mediation team that probably includes Mbeki but also includes some people that they perceive as either sort of fair dealers or potentially even their supporters. So what's going on now is really sort of negotiations about negotiations.

MARTIN: And as you mentioned earlier that there are just thousands upon thousands of Zimbabwean expatriates or refugees, if you will, have taken refuge in South Africa because of both economic and the political circumstances there. Is that having an effect on Mr. Mbeki's own standing at home, on his domestic political circumstance?

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah, absolutely. I spent, you know, four years based in Johannesburg and Mbeki's popularity has just plummeted over the past year. And among the most important reasons is that he is seen as bungling the Zimbabwe situation and he's seen as not dealing effectively with the influx of Zimbabweans that's well into the millions. Its estimates go to three or four million, and just a couple of months ago there was this incredible outbreak of vigilante violence in the townships where, you know, poor South Africans started, you know, beating and burning their homes and killing poor Zimbabweans who had fled there for refugee, and that really crystallized the frustration with Mugabe.

And in fact, his party, you know, the African National Congress, the party of Mbeki and Nelson Mandela has almost entirely abandoned Thabo Mbeki on this issue. He is really a man alone at this point in dealing generally with Robert Mugabe.

MARTIN: Craig Timberg is with the Washington Post Foreign Service. He joined us by phone from Johannesburg. If you want to read his piece in its entirety, we have a link on our web site, Craig Timberg, thank you so much for speaking with us. Mr. TIMBERG: Oh, it was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.