President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s first prime minister, has been the country's only ruler. Since his first being elected in 1987, he has taken measures to strengthen his hold on power and repress opposition political parties. To distract from the country’s political and economic problems, Mugabe has focused attention on a land reform program that expels white farmers he calls “enemies of the state.” Amid claims that the government rigged the 2002 elections, opposition groups have staged strikes and security forces continued their brutal repression of regime opponents.
The country was established in 1923 as the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. In 1965, the white-dominated Rhodesia Front administration of Prime Minister Ian Smith made an illegal unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) for Rhodesia from the United Kingdom.
Black nationalists organized to fight for majority rule and formed two opposing groups, the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo, and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), led initially by the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole and later by Robert Mugabe. These groups merged in 1976 and eventually reached a settlement with the white minority. The Republic of Zimbabwe achieved formal independence from the United Kingdom on 18 April 1980.
The ZANU Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) dominated the ensuing election. Robert Mugabe became prime minister and integrated former guerrillas into the military, though elements of ZAPU remained active. Mugabe used this as a pretext to establish a one-party state.
The government sent the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to Matabeleland in early 1983 to quell dissent, in a campaign known as the Gukuruhundi. The mainly Shona Fifth Brigade was accused of committing atrocities against civilians in its “pacification” campaign and it alienated support of the Matabeleland region’s Ndebele population. It has been estimated that at least 5,000 and as many as 10,000 to 20,000, civilians died during the Fifth Brigade's campaign between 1983 and 1986.
A 1987 unity agreement brought ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo into the government as a vice president and Robert Mugabe became Zimbabwe’s first Executive President. Mugabe won re-election in 1996 by large margins.
As the 2000 elections approached Mugabe proposed a constitutional referendum that would give the government the right to confiscate mainly white-owned land without compensation. Despite losing the referendum, Mugabe managed to force passage of a constitutional amendment in April 2000, after threatening to declare war on white farmers whom he called enemies of the state. As government-backed militants illegally occupied over 1000 white-owned farms, the government passed the amendment allowing the seizure of mainly white-owned farms, including provisions that white farmers dispossessed of their land must appeal to the United Kingdom for compensation.
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was formed in September 1999 under the leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai, Secretary-General of the 700,000-strong Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and in the 2000 elections emerged as an effective opposition to Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, which prevailed by very slim margins.
In September 2000, a grenade exploded outside the MDC's headquarters in Harare. In October 2000 President Mugabe issued a decree granting a general amnesty for politically motivated crimes that occurred between 1 January and 31 July 2000. This effectively pardoned the majority of those responsible for the violence in the election campaign from prosecution. Politically-motivated violence, mostly perpetrated by Government supporters against the MDC and commercial farmers, continued throughout 2001 after the parliamentary elections and into 2002, in the run-up to the presidential election in March.
In February 2001 several MDC officials were attacked and beaten by soldiers, however police blamed and arrested other MDC members for the attacks. In March 2001, the police imposed a ban on MDC rallies in the Chitungwiza township near Harare. A series of murders of white farmers continued and so-called pro-government “war veterans” provoked attacks against MDC members and businesses.
According to reports from the United Kingdom’s Home Office, “a mob attacked whites at random in the town of Chinhoyi in the Mashonaland West province north-west of Harare in August 2001. ZANU-PF supporters attacked whites, stabbing one man, and stoned cars. Police told whites to stay out of the town. The attacks followed the arrest of 22 white farmers who had come to the aid of a fellow farmer whose farm had been occupied by squatters. Police arrested the farmers and charged them with assaulting the squatters. Rampaging mobs swept through the Chinhoyi area, looting farms and forcing white farmers and their families, numbering approximately 300 people, off their land. The farmers criticised the police for failing to protect them and the Daily News reported that police were even assisting the invaders.
Also in August 2001, a white farmer in Kwekwe died from head injuries inflicted in an attack by suspected war veterans. The farmers detained in Chinhoyi were released on bail in August 2001 after two weeks in prison. All but one were barred from returning to their homes as the High Court Judge who granted them bail considered that their return to Chinhoyi would spark further arson attacks and looting. Around 100 white families fled the Chinhoyi area for safety and 35,000 farm workers and their families were thrown out of their homes.”
Since then tensions and violence have escalated steadily. The main adversaries include Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, supported by paramilitary war veterans; the MDC party which has been oppressed by the government and reactionary white Rhodesian farmers that are banding together for protection.
There are signs that Mugabe is strengthening his military in preparation for the 2005 elections, leading some to expect escalating repression. The deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe has many of the classic ingredients for an outbreak of widespread violence.