Operating in Darkness: The Struggle to Document Political Violence in Zimbabwe

This is an article I wrote a year and a half ago about the election fallout in Zimbabwe. It was originally written for the the Financial Times Magazine in the late summer of 2008. They never ran the piece and I lost of track of it in the preceding months. I recently had a hard drive crash and rediscovered it in some old doc’s beavered away in a dusty folder. I first met Ambassador McGee in Madagascar when I was in Peace Corps there. I spoke to him via email for the article, which follows:


“I knew I was moving to a country in a political crisis, but had no idea exactly how bad things were,” said James McGee, the current United States Ambassador to Zimbabwe. In March, Robert Mugabe, the country’s president and one-time liberator, was upset in the first round election by Morgan Tsvangirai, a candidate from the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change. It initially appeared that Tsvangirai had won a majority of the vote, negating a need for a second round of elections.

Official results from the election were not released until a month later when, following a secretive recount overseen by Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. The final tally gave Tsvangirai 47.8% of the vote while Mugabe took 43.2%. In the follow-up election in June, Tsvangirai dropped out of the race after months of violence, assassination attempts, and a scourge of voter intimidation. Mugabe collected 85.5% percent of the vote to Tsvangirai’s 9.3%.

To orchestrate this unbelievable electoral turnaround, Mugabe and the ZANU-PF arranged a far-reaching campaign of violence and intimidation meant to break the spirit of Tsvangirai and his MDC supporters. According to McGee, more than two hundred people were killed and somewhere between thirty and fifty thousand Zimbabweans were displaced. After the first round of elections the ZANU-PF instituted a new program, internally referred to as Operation Vhoterapapi (“Whom Did You Vote For”), in which armed ZANU-PF supporters corralled MDC members for re-education. Support for Tsvangirai in the second round elections would be punishable by death.

Stories of rape, beatings, murder, and destruction of property appeared at regular intervals in the Western press. The day before the June 29 elections The New York Times ran a picture of a Zimbabwean baby with two broken arms on its front page, a casualty of the ZANU-PF-sanctioned violence. After several assassination attempts and failing to convince mediators that he had won the first round elections by an outright majority, something that would have eliminated the need for a run-off election, Tsvangirai officially withdrew himself from the race less than a week before the vote.

“More than 20,000 homes have been destroyed and over 10,000 people have been injured and maimed in this orgy of violence,” said Tsvangirai. “We believe an election that reflects the will of the people is impossible.”

With most Western journalists expelled from the country, getting accurate reports from the ongoing crisis was difficult. Many who tried to remain faced official detention, intimidation, or worse. Freelance cameraman Edward Chikomba was abducted and killed after allegedly supplying Western media outlets with footage of head injuries given to Tsvangirai during police detention just prior to the first round of elections.

In this time of uncertainty, filled with anecdotal reporting and few hard facts, McGee sensed an opportunity. A former pilot who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross three times during a six years of service in Vietnam, McGee became a career foreign service officer with tenures as Ambassador in Swaziland (2002-2004) and Madagascar (2004-2007).

McGee’s initial objectives when he arrived in Zimbabwe in October of 2007 were to help involve more citizens in the electoral process and to open a line of communication with opposition parties. “This worked well and we were able to surprise the ruling party with the turnout and level of personal commitment displayed in the March 29 elections,” said McGee.

Two weeks after the first round of elections the US Embassy began receiving reports of people being “brutalized by the government” for their support of the MDC. McGee arranged a visit to Avenues Clinic in Harare, a hospital being overrun with victims of beatings and torture. “We still have firm reports of people being hospitalized with broken limbs, people hospitalized with burns, and these are all people who have been abducted or forced to go to torture camps,” said McGee in a radio interview with SW Radio Africa.

Under McGee’s guidance, the US Embassy began assembling packets of information to document the systematic violence and the extent to which ZANU-PF was involved with it. “We have literally hundreds of reports, affidavits, pictures, people coming in and telling us their stories, us going to hospitals where victims are literally 99.9% MDC,” McGee told SW Radio Africa. Information was sent to the United Nations and the Southern African Development Community countries in an effort to raise international awareness and supplement that scattered media reports.

McGee arranged another trip to a reported torture site in the small town of Mvurwi, bringing along several staff members and fellow diplomats from Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, and Tanzania. They discovered a cache of torture journals, describing the names of detainees and torturers, the reasons for detention, and the methods of abuse. While attempting to leave, McGee and his entourage were surrounded by ZANU-PF soldiers who locked the gates of the compound and surrounded their vehicles to prevent them from moving. After a tense standoff McGee opened the gates himself while the ZANU-PF soldiers kept their guns trained on him. He waved his group through, daring the soldiers to shoot him.

The UN has been a vocal critic of Mugabe and the ZANU-PF. “The campaign of threat and intimidation we have seen in Zimbabwe goes against the very spirit of democracy,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. “Instead of openness, free competition and transparency, we have witnessed fear, hostility, and blatant attacks against Zimbabwean citizens.” The UN Security Council proposed additional sanctions be applied to Zimbabwe (the US has an on-going embargo dating back to 2001 intended as punishment for Zimbabwe’s involvement in the Second Congo War), but these were vetoed by China and Russia.

While the West has been vociferous in its criticism other African leaders have been have been reluctant to speak out against the ZANU-PF. “With a couple of notable exceptions, the African diplomatic corps has been missing in action in trying to do anything to assist the people of Zimbabwe,” said McGee. “In some cases, African diplomats have actively aided – mainly through manipulation of the media –- the efforts of the government of Zimbabwe to oppress their people.”

Chief among these figures is Thabo Mbeki, former President of South Africa who led the SADC envoy to advocate for peace. Mbeki initially played an important role in securing several key rights for opposition parties in the run-up to the March 29 elections, including the public posting of votes at polling places to help ensure fairness and transparency. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga has been outspoken, calling for Mugabe to be suspended from the African Union until he allows a free and fair election.

Most other members of the AU have been unwilling to take critical positions against Mugabe. Zambia’s president, Omar Bongo said the Mugabe should be recognized as Zimbabwe’s new president after the second-round elections. Mbeki’s approach of “quiet” diplomacy urged for a power-sharing plan between the ZANU-PF and MDC, which would allow Mugabe to retain his position as president while Tsvangirai would become Prime Minister. Cabinet positions would be split between the two parties.

Talks of forming a coalition government have been continually stymied. The MDC proposed a split of authority, giving ZANU-PF control of the Defense Ministry while putting an MDC official in charge of the Home Affairs Ministry, which is responsible for the country’s police force. A deal appeared to have been completed in September, but the ZANU-PF has been unwilling to enact to any significant changes allowing the MDC into positions of authority.

They have instead tried to give the MDC charge of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the handling of waste disposal, while retaining control of the Finance Ministry, the army, and the police. An SADC summit was called in Swaziland in late October in part to help mediate the seeming impasse, but Tsvangirai was unable to attend because to the ZANU-PF refused to renew his passport making it impossible for him to leave the country. “If Mugabe wants an agreement he must do everything to respect the MDC,” Tsvangirai told the Zimbabwe Independent, a local newspaper. “If you cannot give me a passport, how will you entrust me with the keys of the government?”

As the impasse over a power-sharing deal continues, divisions in the MDC have surfaced. Some members are willing to compromise on the larger political stakes in order to begin addressing the urgent health woes and economic crises that have ravaged the country over the last several years. In a country once considered the “breadbasket” or Southern Africa, Zimbabwe has been ravaged over the last two decades.

Life expectancy in Zimbabwe has plummeted. In 1990 the average male lived until 60, today it is 36 for men and 34 for women. According to a 2008 survey by the US State Department, HIV/AIDS prevalence among Zimbabweans age 15-49 is over 15%. After a program to reoccupy huge swatches of farmland previously owned by whites, much of Zimbabwe’s economy has collapsed. Foreign investment in Zimbabwean industry and agriculture has dried up, ownership of farmland has been determined by party loyalty, and jobs have evaporated under the comparative inexperience of the new owners. A recent study by the Cato institute pegged inflation at an incomprehensible 516 quintillion percent. More than 80% of the country is unemployed. After a crippling drought, 2.5 million Zimbabweans rely on the World Food Program’s aid programs to survive.

The result has been a steady exodus of Zimbabweans fleeing into neighboring countries to seek political and economic refuge. “Four million Zimbabweans reportedly live in South Africa,” noted McGee. “Another 500,000 in Botswana, that’s twenty-five percent of the total population of that country.”

The arrival of Zimbabwean immigrants has provoked resentment in many neighboring countries. “We have already seen outbreaks of xenophobic violence in South Africa and the economic drag these refugees are causing in Botswana,” said McGee. “Direct foreign investment is nonexistent in Zimbabwe and investors are reluctant to look at surrounding countries with the problems Zimbabwe cause on their doorsteps.” Recently the German company that supplied the ZANU-PF with the paper to continue printing new money revoked their account due to a combination of political pressure and outstanding debt. No longer able to print new money, the government has resorted to repurposing old bills instead.

While resentment remains dangerously high between the ZANU-PF and MDC, some locals have risked their lives to cross political boundaries to help out their countrymen. “A major figure in the ZANU-PF has been, and continues to, work with the International humanitarian community to provide assistance for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS),” said McGee. “During the violence and government intimidation between the two elections, he provided housing and food for over 200 people who had been displaced from their homes by government operatives. If his actions had been discovered by the ZANU-PF he would have been expelled from the party and his life could have been at risk.”

Reporting from Zimbabwe continues to be difficult and dangerous. The few remaining foreign reporters must travel in disguise and put their guides and translators at risk. The local press is largely beholden to the ZANU-PF. It is illegal to practice as a journalist without annual accreditation from Media and Information Commission. Practicing as a journalist without this accreditation is punishable by up to two years imprisonment. The country’s largest newspaper, The Herald, is largely sympathetic to the ZANU-PF and has called McGee an “Uncle Tom” and “a house negro.”

With so many difficulties surrounding the efforts to report on events continuing to unfold in Zimbabwe, McGee remains committed to using his position to document the country’s struggles.  “I will personally maintain a high profile, where necessary, to keep the international light on events in Zimbabwe,” said McGee.

“The world needs to express its outrage and not allow this regime to operate in darkness. Nothing would make it happier than to be ignored by the world.”


A year and a half later, the government is still haggling over a power sharing deal, but some foreign add has been allowed back into the country and the government has opened media channels with CNN and the BBC. Meanwhile unheard-of inflation, poverty, HIV infection, and starvation persist.

Here’s a Flickr stream with periodically updated images from the country, including documentation of the continuing violence, against dissidents and government workers alike.


2 thoughts on “Operating in Darkness: The Struggle to Document Political Violence in Zimbabwe

  1. Pingback: Operating in Darkness: The Struggle to Document Political Violence … | Zimbabwe News

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