Zimbabwe’s ruling party has backed a proposal to extend Robert Mugabe’s leadership by another two years. Delegates at PF-Zanu’s annual conference have approved a plan to postpone the next presidential election from 2008 until 2010. The news is unlikely to be well received by Mugabe’s many critics who say he has ruined what was one of Africa's most developed economies. The long-term president had said he would retire at the next election. However delegates said there should be no debate on succeeding the president, because there were no vacancies.
The move has yet to be endorsed by the party's central committee and parliament. But these are seen as formalities given PF-Zanu’s parliamentary majority. A party committee chairman, Elliot Manyika, told the annual conference: "The committee reaffirms the leadership of President Robert Mugabe as the leader of the party.” His call was backed up by the youth and women’s’ wing of the party. Oppah Muchinguri, the women's league chairwoman, said Mugabe's continued reign was the only way they would be safe. However opposition politicians say Mugabe is buying time while his party decides on a candidate in the next election.
Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said this is part of Mugabe’s plan to die in office. “Zanu PF must be stopped now if Zimbabwe is to be saved from the jaws of this tyranny,” he said. The MDC is the most credible opposition movement in Zimbabwe. Led by trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai, it won 57 seats in the 2000 parliamentary election compared to PF-Zanu’s 62. Tsvangarai then lost the 2002 presidential election to Mugabe with widespread allegations of vote-rigging and corruption. With Tsvangirai continuing to call for international sanctions against Zimbabwe, the MDC lost ground in the 2005 parliamentary election picking up only 42 seats.
Robert Mugabe has been the only president of Zimbabwe since it became independent in 1980. He was born in 1924 in what was then white Rhodesia and he was raised by Catholic missionaries. He went to South Africa to study at Fort Hare University. Based in the semi-independent bantustan of Ciskei, Fort Hare was the only tertiary education establishment open to blacks in the apartheid era. Here Mugabe met many future black African leaders such as Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and Tanzania’s Julius Nyrere.
Mugabe returned to Rhodesia in 1960 and joined Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu). Nkomo was to become Mugabe great rival for power among the black population in the next 30 years. Barely three years after joining Nkomo, Mugabe left to form his own party the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu). The split was mostly on ethnic grounds with Mugabe leading the Shona majority (85%) while Nkomo leading the smaller Ndebele tribe (15%). Both men were jailed by Ian Smith’s apartheid government and spent ten years in prison without trial.
When they were released in 1974 they both fled the country to continue the resistance. Nkomo went to Zambia, Mugabe to Mozambique. The civil war they raged paralysed the Rhodesian government. Smith installed a puppet government under Abel Muzerawa in 1978 but it lacked credibility with the black participants. Britain finally brought the parties to the negotiating table in 1979 and hammered out the Lancaster House agreement. A ceasefire was agreed and parliamentary elections were called for 1980. But the main stumbling block was land reform. Eventually the British and US governments underwrote a fund to buy land from willing white settlers for reallocation to blacks.
Joshua Nkomo was favourite to win the 1980 election due to his enormous personal popularity. But Zanu played the tribal card and won. Nkomo declined the ceremonial post of President. He was appointed to the cabinet, but was accused of plotting a coup two years later. His passport was seized and he was restricted to his Bulawayo home before fleeing the country. Mugabe strengthened his hold on power and launched a brutal crackdown on Zapu supporters not dissimilar to tactics employed in the past against enemies of white rule.
Mugabe abolished the role of prime minister in 1987 and awarded all the powers of that role to himself as president. He was re-elected in 1990, 1996 and again in 2002.
In recent years, Mugabe turned his attention to the unfinished business of land reform. The Lancaster House agreement only held to ‘willing sellers’ and many whites had no intention of moving. The ten year moratorium on constitutional change expired in 1990. Mugabe moved to amend it in order to provide for the redistribution of land within the country. Much of Zimbabwe’s most fertile land remained under control of a few thousand white farmers. And in 1997 newly elected Tony Blair ended Britain’s involvement in the buyback program. Mugabe started to forcibly repatriate the land.
His actions attracted the attention of the NGOs. Amnesty International, a long-time supporter of Zimbabwe since the apartheid era, criticised the Mugabe regime for its new activities. In 2005, it wrote a letter to Mugabe accusing him of orchestrating “widespread, violent and forced evictions of informal traders and families living in informal settlements.” Their call to the government to end “grave human rights violations” went unheeded. Zimbabwe's economy also continues to slide after Mugabe's ill-judged involvement in the Congolese wars.
However Mugabe remains popular in black Africa. When London-based New African magazine launched a 2004 poll for the “hundred greatest Africans” of all time, Mugabe came in at number 3 behind only Nelson Mandela and Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah.