Despite Dire Economy, Mugabe Hopes to Stay

Zimbabweans head to the polls on Saturday to cast their votes in what may be the most closely watched election in the country's history. President Robert Mugabe is attempting to extend his nearly 30-year reign amid dire economic conditions. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton offers analysis.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Continuing our focus on international news, Zimbabweans head to the polls on Saturday to cast their votes in what may be the most closely watched election the country has ever held. President Robert Mugabe, the country's first black leader after independence, is trying to extend his nearly 30 year hold on the office amid terrible economic conditions and what his opponents call an ongoing campaign of harassment designed to crush any political opposition.

Here to tell us more is NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She joins us from South Africa. Welcome, thanks for talking to us.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: I think people would be interested to know why you're still in South Africa trying to cover an election in Zimbabwe.

QUIST-ARCTON: We put in our applications for media accreditation to cover the elections weeks ago, but it seems that many foreign correspondents don't seem to be welcome in Zimbabwe. And that, many say, reflects President Robert Mugabe's government's view of who and who cannot observe these elections. So still another couple of days to go, but I don't seem to have got the green light yet, and you'll remember that I was there last year, officially, not clandestine. I got official media accreditation, and I covered all sides. But there we go.

MARTIN: I do remember that. And Ofeibea, it's been reported that no white reporters will be accredited, that no reporters from Europe will be accredited. Do you know whether that's true?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, I can't say. You'd have to ask the Zimbabwean government. All I can tell you is that many foreign correspondents based here in Johannesburg, because South Africa is seen as one of the regional media headquarters for foreign news organizations, many of the correspondents based here have not been accredited. Now, President Mugabe's spokesman, George Charamba, has said that any journalist, foreign correspondent, foreign journalist, found covering or trying to report from Zimbabwe undercover will be thrown out, but that Zimbabweans helping them will also get into trouble.

So the climate for the media, especially the international media, is not brilliant. But there are lots of South African journalists who are certainly there.

MARTIN: So tell us who is on the ballot and what are the issues? Obviously, the economy is a terribly important issue.

QUIST-ARCTON: Sure. Well, there are actually four presidential candidates, but a lot of Zimbabweans don't seem to know that the fourth, Apasta(ph) from Matabeleland, is standing. The big guns are President Robert Mugabe, in power for 28 years since independence from Britain in 1980, his main political rival for the past 10 or so years, Morgan Tsvangirai, from the Movement for Democratic Change, and his erstwhile finance minister, Simba Makoni. He's been part of the establishment, as I say finance minister, part of the governing ZANU-PF party, although he's been now thrown out of President Mugabe's party. He says he's standing as an independent, and he's standing for change. So those are the candidates.

MARTIN: Given the terrible economic conditions. I mean, the hyperinflation, apparently shortages of basic, you know, foods, gasoline, and things of that sort. What is Mugabe's argument for staying in power?

QUIST-ARCTON: That he knows Zimbabwe, my Zimbabwe, as he calls the country, and that he knows his people. I haven't been there for a year, but I can tell you then everybody's shoes were worn down because everybody was walking. There were fuel shortages even then. 12 months later, things have got worse. Prices, as you said, for staple foods, for all sorts of essentials, have gone skyrocketing. And that's if you can find them.

Zimbabwe used to provide its neighbors - South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, with food. It was an agricultural-based economy, and it was an economy that was doing brilliantly when President Mugabe came to power in 1980. Now, Zimbabweans are looking to their neighbors for food and to international aid organizations for food handouts, so it's a complete turnabout.

Now, what President Mugabe says to his critics at home and abroad, and that includes Britain, the former colonizer, Washington, Australia, and there's others, is that it's their fault that Zimbabwe is facing its current ills. He says it's because of their sanctions and because they are working through the opposition, who he calls stooges, puppets, and political prostitutes, that Zimbabwe is in this current crisis. That's the government's side, but of course that's not what his opponents are saying.

MARTIN: It does seem fair to ask, though, what his political opponents say they would do about this terrible situation.

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, that's the - you know when it comes to those big issues they're all saying we will be change, and we will revive the economy. But of course, easier said than done. This has been a slow decline for Zimbabwe over the past eight, ten years. As I say, it used to be an agricultural based economy here, and it was in around 2000 when President Mugabe had lost the referendum, when he was trying to entrench his already long service in government, that he lost that referendum.

And it was after that people say he became bitter and a little vicious, and it was called land invasions. But in fact, it was the seizure of mainly white-owned farms, productive farms, that were providing food not only for Zimbabwe but for its neighbors, that's when Zimbabwe, many people will say, started on the skids. And it's been a slippery slope downwards ever since. The opposition is saying they will change that but of course, you don't know until you're tested and in power.

MARTIN: And clearly no one wants to see a repeat of the situation that was only recently resolved in Kenya, where concerns about the fairness of the election there led to weeks and weeks of violence and many deaths. Are there concerns that A, elections in Zimbabwe will be conducted fairly? And B, whether if Mugabe stays in power that there will be violent protests?

QUIST-ARCTON: Although the issues in Zimbabwe are different to those in Kenya, and they don't - the Zimbabweans don't have the same ethnic problems that we saw in the Kenya crisis. Yes, people are worried that there may be violence depending on who wins and depending whether there is, as some people say, already skewed and rigged. So doubts have certainly been cast on these elections, inside and outside the country, including Washington.

MARTIN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's West Africa correspondent. She joined us from Johannesburg, South Africa. Ofeibea, good luck, and keep us posted please.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thanks.

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