Canadians Keep Tabs on Mugabe Excesses

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David Coltart, an opposition MP in Zimbabwe, a human rights lawyer and an activist, is no stranger to election campaign violence. Long the target of threats by senior government officials himself, his polling agent Patrick Nabanyama was abducted and “disappeared” during the June 2000 elections.

Then, last month, as Zimbabwe was gearing up for this weekend’s presidential elections, Coltart himself was detained by police for discharging a firearm — a charge he adamantly denies.

“I spoke to him this morning,” explains Canadian MP Bill Casey, foreign affairs critic for the Progressive Conservative/Democratic Representative coalition (PC/DR). The conversation took place over the phone from his constituency office in Truro, Nova Scotia. “I wanted to ensure he was safe and to check with him about releasing information about his case. He said to me, ‘Go public. We need the world to know about this.’”

Through an initiative of Oxfam Canada and Amnesty International Canada, Casey, along with thirteen other Canadian MPs and senators, has been “twinned” with Zimbabwean MPs who are at risk of pre-election violence. The Canadians provide whatever support and protection they can to their Zimbabwean counterparts.

Casey has been in regular contact with his “twin,” and has taken Coltart’s case to the Zimbabwean High Commission in Canada, seeking information and an explanation of the charges.

“This, for me, is a matter of human rights,” Casey says. “Sadly, I don’t think the elections this weekend will be free and fair, and I feel Canada must do everything it can to support democracy in Zimbabwe.”

Facing the greatest threat to his twenty-two year rule, President Robert Mugabe, of the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front party (ZANU-PF), has launched a campaign of intimidation against his increasingly popular opponent, former union leader Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Some foreign media and independent observers have been banned in Zimbabwe during the elections. The army has been given complete control over the election, down to the vote count. Hundreds of thousands of names have “disappeared” from voter registries. A number of polling stations has been rigged to favour areas that are ZANU-PF strongholds.

Reports are coming in from across the country of MDC supporters being harassed, beaten, whipped, raped and set on fire by the ZANU-PF's private youth militia. Tsvangirai has been charged with treason, while other opposition candidates have been threatened, fired on and arrested on dubious charges. Thirty-one people have been killed in political violence since January, most of them supporters of the MDC.

Mugabe, president since white rule ended in 1980, has framed the election as the final battle in the struggle for African self-determination. One of his priorities is to return land stolen during British colonial rule to black people. (About 4,000 white farmers own half of Zimbabwe’s farmland and whites still run most industry.) He paints Tsvangirai as a front man for the nation’s white minority.

The opposition MDC, which faces its own credibility issues as the party favoured by the white minority in a nation that still keenly remembers the racist colonial rule of Britain, narrowly lost parliamentary elections in June 2000 in an equally violent race.

The past two years have been marked by escalating violence which, combined with the devastating impact of falling tobacco prices and several droughts, have created food shortages and plunged the nation into economic crisis. According to the United Nations, inflation is at 114 per cent and three out of four of Zimbabwe’s twelve million citizens live in poverty.

Tsvangirai and the MDC place the blame for Zimbabwe’s current crisis squarely on the government, and insist it’s time for a change. For his part, Mugabe says the fault lies with Britain and the wealthy white businessmen who are hoarding food and wreaking economic havoc in order to oust him from office.

Which is the best party and the best person to lead Zimbabwe out of its current crisis and into a better future is a question only the people of Zimbabwe can answer. But unless the elections this weekend are free, fair and transparent, however, that answer will be meaningless.

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