HARARE, Zimbabwe — A wave of violence that has hit Zimbabwe in recent weeks has left the southern African nation on a knife edge, prompting coalition partner Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai once again to seek the intervention of regional leaders.
The violence is reminiscent of 2008, when Mugabe supporters led a brutal campaign of violence against supporters of Tsvangirai, the president’s bitter rival, after the opposition leader won the first round of voting in presidential polls.
It took months then to resolve those clashes. Regional powers called upon to mediate cobbled together a power-sharing coalition between Tsvangirai and Mugabe. Since then, Zimbabwe has muddled along without any real reforms.
As both men look toward potential elections next year, the resurgence of violence suggests a worrying trend. Residents of a poor town 30 kilometers southeast of the capital, Harare, over the weekend woke up to scenes of violence reminiscent of 2008, when the military led a brutal campaign against President Robert Mugabe after he had lost first-round voting to bitter rival and now coalition partner Morgan Tsvangirai.
The chilly morning weather was supposed to be a respite after days of scorching heat on Sunday for the residents of Chitungwiza town, a bastion of Tsvangirai support.
But vicious gangs armed to the teeth descended on the neighborhood and pounced on Tsvangirai’s supporters who were gathering for a rally due mid-morning that day.
Young men and children as young as 10 attacked with machetes, wooden clubs, catapults, iron bars and stones, turning the town of over 1 million people into a mini-battle zone.
Residents caught in the crossfire were forced to lock themselves inside their homes, although some houses had window panes destroyed during the violence.
Police, long accused by Tsvangirai and his civil-society partners of being pro-Mugabe, watched as the gang ran riot.
Tsvangirai said the violence was a sign of things to come, warning that failure by the regional Southern African Development Community, which helped strike the coalition government, to intervene would worsen the situation.
SADC holds sway over political processes in Zimbabwe after being mandated by the African Union in 2008 to mediate and ensure credible elections. SADC has in turn asked South African President Jacob Zuma to handle to Zimbabwe crisis.
Previous appeals by the regional group for Mugabe to end violence have fallen on deaf ears.
But this has not stopped finance minister and MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti from writing to Zuma asking him to ratchet up political pressure on Mugabe.
No election date has been announced yet, but both Mugabe and Tsvangirai agree they are fed up with their unworkable coalition and want elections before the end of 2013.
Mugabe, who is in his late 80s and reportedly suffering from failing health, wants the vote as soon as the first quarter of next year. Tsvangirai insists he will only participate in elections once electoral reforms, including a new constitution, are in place and political violence is completely eradicated.
“If the current situation prevails, then the election will be a sham. We have to create conditions for free and fair elections that are universally accepted. It is time for Sadc to use its muscle,” Tsvangirai said Monday.
Analysts and civil-society groups say Mugabe is in election mode and therefore unlikely to force his supporters to abandon violence as a strategy.
“This is going to be the situation going forward,” said Macdonald Lewanika, whose group, Crisis Coalition Zimbabwe has in the past met Zuma to press the urgency of resolving the Zimbabwe crisis.
The violence in Chitungwiza followed several cases reported countrywide in recent weeks. In some of the cases, members of parliament who had been conducting public hearings on proposed amendments to electoral laws were forced to retreat after Mugabe’s supporters violently disrupted the meetings.
Rindai Chipfunde Vava, director of the country’s biggest independent elections monitoring group, Zimbabwe Election Support Network, said her group “fears for the worst.”
“We have been monitoring the situation, and early signs are that we are sliding back to the 2008 era. Political gangs are regrouping and arming for a campaign of violence,” she said.