Mugabe's Party Loses Control of Parliament In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe's grip on power seems to be weakening. Election results show his party has lost control of parliament and his only course of action may be to accept a run-off vote to save his seat as president. Journalist Martin Meredith discusses the situation in the southern African nation.

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Zimbabwe is on the brink of a new chapter in its troubled history. Election results appear to confirm that the party of President Robert Mugabe lost control of parliament and possibly the presidency, too.

Robert Mugabe is among the last of the generation of Africans who fought against colonial rule and led their countries to independence. And for many years afterwards, Zimbabwe was among the great success stories in Africa. But over the decades, Mugabe tightened his grip on power and quashed opposition.

Under his policies, the country's economy and infrastructure crumbled, along with human rights. And many came to regard the man they once hailed as the father of his nation as a tyrant. Inflation today is almost unimaginable. Many have fled the country as political or economic refugees.

Now that Mugabe's long rule may soon be over, we'll look back at his political record and why and how he turned from idealist to dictator, and we'll look ahead to the possibilities for a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.

Later in the hour, we'll talk with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom about his dilemma when the Olympic torch stops for its only stop in North America next week, but first, Robert Mugabe's last political fight.

If you've been watching the news unfold in Zimbabwe, especially if you're from there, tell us your story. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. The e-mail address is You can also join the conversation on our blog. That's at

Joining us now from the studios of the BBC in Oxford is author and historian Martin Meredith. He's the author of the book "Mugabe: Power, Plunder and the Struggle for Zimbabwe." And welcome to Talk of the Nation.

Mr. MARTIN MEREDITH (Author, "Mugabe: Power and Plunder in Zimbabwe"): Thank you.

CONAN: After years of dictatorship and one-party rule, I wonder, do you think Robert Mugabe anticipated that this could happen?

Mr. MEREDITH: Yes, I think he knew he was pretty unpopular. The real question is - and it still remains very much an open question, is to whether he will succeed in holding on to power.

His party, Zanu-PF, has lost, as you said, the parliamentary election. It failed to get the majority there. But real power resides with the presidency, and Mugabe is the incumbent, and he will have got sufficient number of votes to go on to a second round of voting, which will take place in three weeks time.

And he may well, in that period, manage by all kinds of fair means and foul means to climb back into control. That is, he might end up by winning the presidency in three weeks time, but meanwhile losing control of parliament. But since parliament doesn't matter that much, Robert Mugabe may well continue in power.

CONAN: Now, we're talking with Martin Meredith, a journalist and historian. His book is "Mugabe: Power and Plunder in Zimbabwe." Again, if you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. E-mail is

And Martin Meredith, as you look at these developments, there are calls across the world today to, well, abide by the verdict of the people, how they voted and including calls from South Africa which is going to be extremely important in how all this plays out over the next days and weeks ahead?

Mr. MEREDITH: It is indeed. The real problem is, is that the - Mugabe has a record of rigging elections, pretty well all the elections since year 2000 have been rigged.

He controls the electoral machinery. His own appointed officials are in place there. And because there has been so much rigging in the past, the suspicion is that there is a certain amount of rigging going on at the moment. And it's quite difficult to determine whether the results that have been announced by the electoral commission are real results or whether they've been massaged by Mugabe's officials.

So it's all very well for people outside Zimbabwe. and indeed South Africa's voice is hugely important. It's all very well for them to insist that the voice of the people is heard, but it's really a question of whether it's going to be capable of being heard. And that's a pretty big difference.

CONAN: You mentioned the widespread belief that Mugabe rigged elections for many years now. He could have, one presumes, named himself president for life if he'd wanted to. Why did he hold on to the trappings of democracy which may ultimately have brought him down?

Mr. MEREDITH: Well, he has always been a bit of a stickler for, if you like, maintaining a front. And he's always ready to argue that, in a sense, it was the British who didn't bring democracy, but because he had to snatch it by process of guerilla warfare from the British. So he was the person, he claims, who brought democracy to Zimbabwe. And because of that claim, he's always tended to stick to the trappings, as you say, of democracy without necessarily fulfilling them in practice.

CONAN: Do you believe that if he should lose, either in the first round, as many people believe he did, or if he should lose at a runoff election, that he will willingly cede power?

Mr. MEREDITH: I - he's a man of huge ambition and huge ruthlessness, and he's shown that in the past. He's also surrounded by people who have a vested interest in maintaining - in him maintaining power, particularly the security chiefs and intelligence chiefs and various other kind of groups, which basically, have lived off Mugabe and, indeed, Mugabe has relied on them to intimidate and harass opposition members, and to - that is part of his way of maintaining his rule.

Because of Mugabe's huge ambition, I mean, he basically - what he wants to do, and what he says he wants to do is to go on running Zimbabwe until the time comes when he has to stand down or when he dies. And I think he did joke last year that - it was only a half-serious joke, that he wanted to go on until he was a hundred years old. And what Mugabe says is very often what he means and what he intends to do. And if he was given a free hand, I think he would remain in power probably until the day he died.

I don't put it past him to be able to rig the second round of the presidential vote in three weeks time, and to remain in power, even though he's lost control of parliament.

CONAN: We're talking again with Martin Meredith, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255.

And let's turn to Anthony(ph). Anthony is calling us from Durham, in North Carolina.

ANTHONY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi there. Go ahead, please.

ANTHONY: How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

ANTHONY: Yeah. Well, my comment is, I think it's about time that Mugabe should step out of office, but let's not forget how many good things that young man has done for the country. That's the first and then the second. The economy started going down after the land reform. And the other thing that really, really bothers me is nobody, even the media, specifies what happened prior to that.

Mugabe offered most of those farmers who has that land, that if you inherited it from your former colonial masters, which is their grandfathers who came in and moved people off that land that if they hadn't bought it, he was going to pay them in the current market values for the development as they'd put on the land, that used to take that. And also, if there - the bottom of the farm reform, 90 percent or 80 percent of that land was being owned by 5 percent of the population. And the country was growing and the people were growing - and that's not mentioned. And after that, when that happened, that's when (unintelligible) were imposed on the country, and the economy started going down.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, let's get - first, Martin Meredith, the first part of Anthony's remarks where he says it may be time for Mugabe to go, but let's not forget the great good that he did.

Mr. MEREDITH: Yes. I mean, the early years of Mugabe's rule were years of considerable developments and prosperity. He came to power in 1980 as a revolutionary leader who sought a pragmatic way forward, and he became something of a hero not only in Africa but in other parts of the world. And Western governments lined up to give him very substantial amounts of aid and finance. And indeed, in its first year, Zimbabwe was promised more than a billion dollars in aide.

Because of that aide, Mugabe launched very ambitious programs of education and health. And indeed, the whole country prospered including the white farmers, who are basically the backbone of - one of the main backbones of the economy. Unfortunately, Mugabe, his record of, if you like, economic management was not - he wasn't particularly effective. But far more seriously, he embarked on a campaign to enforce a one-party system. And that involved a campaign of terra and mass murder against his opponents in the part of the country known as Matabeleland.

And in that campaign, it was a military campaign, at least 20,000 civilians died. And this happened in the - within, literally, two or three years of independence in 1980. So Mugabe's record from the very beginning was mixed, that that he's at - the economy did prosper and indeed white farmers prospered throughout the 1980s, and indeed throughout the 1990s. But nevertheless, another part of Mugabe's record was this campaign which literally amounted to mass murder. Now, coming to the point about the farm reform, it's quite true that the whole system was skewed in favor of white farmers.

And indeed, they are an extremely effective and professional group, and as I said, they were the backbone of math through the economy. Mugabe took pretty little interest when he first came to power in the need for land reform. The British government spent considerable amount of money, 44 million pounds, that's nearly, well let's say $60 million, on assisting him with land reform. But they stopped when it was revealed that Mugabe, instead of handing land and farms over to peasant farmers for resettlement, which is what the intention was, were actually giving them to his own cronies.

Mugabe continued to rule, basically through a huge system of patronage. And one of the ways that he wielded that patronage was basically to handout farms to his own circle of supporters. So the farm reform program came to a grinding halt because of the corruption that was involved. And indeed, Mugabe never really attempted any serious land reform until the time came when white farmers were turn against him.

CONAN: Anthony, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Journalist Martin Meredith about what might happen in Zimbabwe. It appears Robert Mugabe's long hold on power maybe slipping. If you'd like to join us, again the number 800-989-8255. E-mail us at

I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us, it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the possibilities of change in Zimbabwe. Election results have trickled in, it appears that change is on the horizon for the embattled country. Our guest, Martin Meredith, author of "Mugabe: Power, Plunder and the Struggle for Zimbabwe."

We want to hear form you, especially if you're from there about your expectations of a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Give us a call, 800-989-8255, e-mail: You can read whatever the listeners have to say on our blog at

The state of press freedom in Zimbabwe deteriorated as rapidly as its economy. One of many journalists who fled is Geoffrey Nyarota, he is the former editor of The Daily News in Zimbabwe. He was forced to leave the country in late 2003. He's online daily newspaper is called The Zimbabwe Times. He joins us now by phone from his office in Massachusetts. It's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today. Excuse me, Geoffrey Nyarota.

Mr. GEOFFREY NYAROTA (Managing Editor, The Zimbabwe Times): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, nice to have on the program today.

Mr. NYAROTA: Thank you.

CONAN: Why did you have to leave Zimbabwe?

Mr. NYAROTA: I have to leave Zimbabwe because the situation had become untenable for me, with the constant harassment by the government, including arrest, bombing of our printing press, death threats. So at the time of my departure, I took good advice that it was no longer safe for me to remain in the country.

CONAN: Were you…

Mr. NYAROTA: So sadly, I left.

CONAN: Were you…

Mr. NYAROTA: I closed the paper soon afterwards.

CONAN: Were you an opponent of Robert Mugabe or, at some point in your career, had you been a supporter of his?

Mr. NYAROTA: I was never an opponent in that sense. I was a campaigner for democracy. But in Mugabe's eye, anybody who commits - who campaigns for democracy, for freedom, for justice, fairness, becomes the opponent. So I became an opponent by default. Because I challenged Mugabe, because I believe that there should be freedom of information, freedom of the press, and the government did not like that. It's a time when there was too much to hide.

CONAN: Do you now think you're going to be able to go home soon?

Mr. NYAROTA: Oh, yes. At the earliest opportunity, there's nothing that I'd love to do more than to return to my own country.

CONAN: And just looking at the political situation, do you believe that's going to happen, be possible in the next…

Mr. NYAROTA: I am keeping my fingers crossed. I am an optimist. The situation that has developed over the past week has given me a reason to be more optimistic than I have been in the past. I was convinced before last week that Zanu-PF was going to be thoroughly beaten.

CONAN: That's Mugabe's party, Zanu-PF.

Mr. NYAROTA: That's Mugabe's party, yes - by the opposition MDC. It appears that did not happen in the way that most Zimbabweans had expected. To start with, it took the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission three full days to count or to collate the result of the parliamentary elections.

Ironically, the public had had access to this election as early as Monday morning. But they only announced the final result yesterday. But, we have to - we have learned to be patient. But now, I hear that they have postponed announcement of the senate elections. As of the presidential election, there is no indication at this stage when they'll be announced. So, those are reasons - those are causes for concern. But I remain optimistic that at the end of the day, the people of Zimbabwe will be celebrating.


Mr. NYAROTA: I think Mr. Mugabe is just - somebody has described his current exit as the key - the last (unintelligible) of a dying moth. I think that is not too far from the truth.

CONAN: If that is true, and if that happens, and I guess, one day, sooner or later it will, do you think, first of all, those who have such an enormous stake in keeping Mr. Mugabe in power, the, you know, his supporters, his cronies, do you think that they will go quietly? And, also, do you think the opposition can hold together?

Mr. NYAROTA: I think those people that you refer to, Mr. Mugabe's cronies, are actually part of the problem. I believe sincerely that if it wasn't for them, Mr. Mugabe might have gone a long time ago. But they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. A large - a good number of them have been corrupt, they've amassed huge quantities of wealth, and they want to protect their stake. So it is not in their interest that there is a new government.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. NYAROTA: So they have become part of the problem. So it's not that Mr. Mugabe; it's Mr. Mugabe and a (unintelligible).

CONAN: Martin Meredith, let's bring you back in here. As we're talking with Geoffrey Nyarota about this group who's been supportive of Mr. Mugabe all this years, again, there should be - would there be enormous fears that they would not be willing to go quietly?

Mr. MEREDITH: Well, the problem is this, that many of them are part of the military network on whom Mugabe has relied to keep him in power. And it's certainly true that were Mugabe to go, their position would be seriously compromised and undermined. And some of them might even face, kind of, criminal charges for all kinds of things - from murder to corruption. Therefore - and these are people who, if you like, have a pretty nasty record in terms of running campaigns against the political opposition which includes everything from intimidation to beating up to murder. I don't think they will go lightly. And I think Geoffrey Nyarota is quite right that they are part of the problem. It's not just Mugabe who needs to kind of go; it's part of a system which has kept him in power, which presents a pretty huge hurdle.

CONAN: Geoffrey Nyarota, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. NYAROTA: Thank you very much. Have a good day.

CONAN: You too. Geoffrey Nyarota, editor of The Zimbabwe Times. You can find a link to that on our blog at

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is going to be Henry(ph). Henry from Margate in Florida.

HENRY (Caller): Yes. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

HENRY: In view of the disaster that Robert Mugabe has brought on Zimbabwe, can anyone truly believe an election result in which he comes out a winner? And if he will not leave peacefully, are we going to have to go through the same thing we are going through in tenure? Are the Zimbabwean people going to have to suffer through another genocide in Zimbabwe?

CONAN: What do you think Martin Meredith?

Mr. MEREDITH: Well, no. There was nothing like genocide in Kenya. And certainly that conditions in Zimbabwe are very different from what they are in Kenya at the time of the election there. But Mugabe undauntedly retains a certain measure of support, certainly in the rural areas. And that has to do with his record as being the man who, if you like, has claimed to be the liberator of Zimbabwe. He won the first election. In his own view and in his supporters' view, he is, if you like, the founder of the modern state. And for that, he gets due recognition and, indeed, it is that kind of residual support which is quite important. Even if one assumes that in the parliamentary elections won by - with the majority won by the Movement for Democratic Change, the present opposition, even if there was rigging, there was a pretty, significant turnout in favor of Zanu-PF. And a lot of that will have come from rural areas.

Now, it is quite true that Zimbabwe is in such a horrendous economic mess, that it is puzzling the way in which the man responsible for that mess - i.e. Robert Mugabe - and it is a manmade disaster and Mugabe is the man who's made that disaster, it is puzzling that he retains that degree of political support, but it has to do with his record as - of liberating Zimbabwe from white minority rule.

CONAN: Not just the only reference we've heard to Kenya. This is an e-mail we have from David(ph) who's with us from Urbana, Illinois. I was in Kenya during the election and violence that ensued after the election rigging. I arrived back to the U.S. only two weeks ago. The lesson learned is this, election rigging is a symptom of a broken system, and when people respond violently, they're reacting to root causes, not to the rigging itself. Land tenure, economic inequity, and a broken economic system prompted the Kenyan violence and the parallels to Zimbabwe are unmistakable. The stability of the region is very much at stake. Would you agree?

Mr. MEREDITH: Well, yes I mean I think I would agree about the causes of the violence in Kenya, that it was an outrage that the election had been rigged which triggered off violence which, in the sense, was underlying ready to be triggered off.

Now, in Zimbabwe, I think it's really different. People are pretty exhausted. Kenya is a, and was up to the time of the election, a prosperous and viable state. Zimbabwe is a broken state, or its people are broken, and they are literally suffering from more or less, mass starvation. There isn't food in the shops, people are more worried about how they keep the kids fed than they are about, if you like, protesting and, certainly, getting involved in violent demonstrations.

And that accounts for part of the reason why there has been, if you like, a relatively subdued response to the election results, is that people are finding it difficult enough to keep the, sort of, family together, to feed the family, let alone get involved in political protests. But there's no doubt that the anger and resentment that will be felt in Zimbabwe if the elections are rigged.

And if in fact, as happened in Kenya, the president - the incumbent president -loses control of parliament, but rigs the election so that he can continue in power - if that happens in Zimbabwe, as it happened in Kenya, I think there will be the potential for serious violence.

But I also think that before that violence might occur, it's possible in the next three weeks when Mugabe will unleash his thugs, his militias, his youth groups to try and whip the population into line, as it were, into supporting him on the second round of the presidential vote. I think there may well be violence before the result of that second round is announced.

CONAN: We have a couple of e-mails from people from Zimbabwe. This is from Clara(ph) in Cincinnati. I am in Zimbabwean who's convinced the tide is changing and supports the opposition. However, I think the opposition did wrong by threatening Mugabe with jail time. As an elder statesman, they should have offered a dignified exit for him, like it or not, he's a war hero who brought liberation to Zimbabwe and deserves whatever little respect we can give him into his twilight years.

And this from Endico(ph) From Lawton, Oklahoma. As a Zimbabwean who became an American, last Friday before Saturday's vote, I say good riddance to the Mugabe regime, the incoherent policies they passed include one that strips me of my Zimbabwean citizenship. It also robs me of my historical links. With over three million Zimbabweans now in the diaspora, many of us were looking forward to this day. I hope the international community is monitoring all aspects of the transition, including financial transactions so there's no continued looting and plundering of this abused nation. For those who described Mugabe as a hero for liberating people, I say to them, he's an abusive father who prides himself for having been hard on you as a child, abuse should not be tolerated in any form even from our fathers.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, this is Edward(ph), Edward calling us from Denver, Colorado.

EDWARD (Caller): Yes, thank you very much for having this program on, I think it's very important. And I want to thank Mr. Meredith for writing "Mugabe" I enjoyed reading it. I'm very optimist - pessimistic, rather, about the situation in Zimbabwe. And, you know, there have been all sorts of rumors flying around about whether Mugabe is still in the country, whether he's left and what's going to happen. I don't want to be a prophet of doom, but I think that's what's happening now is not a very good sign.

You know, my sense is that, you know, something desperate is going to happen, we're going to have Mugabe all over again. And, you know, I feel very sad about that. I have been out of the country for about 10 years now. And so, you know, I - since its early days even to, you know, begin to talk about Mugabe getting out of, you know, being defeated by Tsvangirai, he's just not the sort of person who will accept defeat. I mean - and the Mr. Meredith has recorded that very well in his writings.

CONAN: You referenced to Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition.

EDWARD: No, no. I'm talking about Robert Mugabe.

CONAN: Yeah, I know, but you also mentioned Mr. Tsvangirai's name as you're trying to explain to listeners who he was.

EDWARD: Well, I mean, I have this different set of worries about Mr. Tsvangirai. I think he's a great trade unionist organizer, and if we wanted to talk about him, one thing we should be asking is whether he - would he has the skill and the ability to lead the country? Which skill and ability will desperately be needed in the years ahead, and I also have doubts about that. I think that he's a good man, he loves democracy but, you know, I just don't think that he is presidential material. But that's another set of questions.

CONAN: That's another set of questions. Martin Meredith, do you think Edward has reason to be worried?

Mr. MEREDITH: Yes. I mean, Tsvangirai, has in the past, shown extraordinary courage but he's also noted for poor judgment. But I'm less worried about that, should he, in fact, eventually emerge as president because Zimbabwe is in such a terrible state that it has alarmed the international community. Already, there are Western governments lining up with various aid packages.

Now, because the situation is so dire, it requires, if you like, international expertise and that expertise will be parachuted into Harare. Therefore, - and indeed, even that expertise will find it quite difficult to turn the situation around. I mean, I think probably Zimbabwe has set back - being set back by as much as 20 years.

But in terms of, if you like, the - whether an incoming government is capable of turning the situation around, providing they get foreign aid and providing there are sufficient number of experts who will, if you like, monitor and control the road back to some kind of order, I don't think it matters so much whether Tsvangirai has that, if you like, presidential ability. I mean, it would be very difficult for - Mugabe is an extremely intelligent man, he has six university degrees, he has turned Zimbabwe into such a state of decrepitude that it's not really a good example of anybody who is skilled and trained.

CONAN: Edward, thanks very much for the call.

EDWARD: Well, thank you for having me on.

CONAN: And Martin Meredith, thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. MEREDITH: Thank you.

CONAN: Martin Meredith, a journalist and historian, the author of "Mugabe: Power and Plunder in Zimbabwe."

Coming up next, we're going to be talking with the mayor of San Francisco who's got a problem and a opportunity on his hands - the arrival of the Olympic Torch in San Francisco next week.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.