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Get set for the African spring. With the recent arrest of six Zimbabwean citizens for watching news international news coverage of the Arab Spring revolutions, the stage is set for a violent uprising against the government of Robert Mugabe. And it can’t come a minute too soon.
The charges laid against the six individuals last week was “conspiring to commit public violence.” The arrests — expected to be the first of many — signal the growing panic within Zimbabwe’s divided government that the Arab spring protests might soon shift south, from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to ignite the kindling of Zimbabwe’s disenfranchised public.
Arrests nearly a year ago moved Zimbabwe’s population to threaten action: the “Zimbabwe Million Citizen March” was organized online with the intention of occupying the capital’s Harare Square in March 2011. On the day of action, no one showed up. Activists originally blamed the poorly organized online presence: Facebook and Twitter, they said, does not a revolution make.
The more likely culprit behind the failed event was the knowledge of Mugabe’s history of abuse against all forces of opposition. Amnesty International, a consistent critic of the Mugabe government, notes that the aging regime has a history of state-sponsored intimidation, arbitrary arrests and torture. Opposition in the streets, a rarity within the nation, would demand a large assumption of risk by the people of the former British colony.
Many argue that the people of Zimbabwe are not “desperate” enough to stand up to their government. However, as the international community remains transfixed by Syria, recent trends suggest that Mugabe’s time may soon be up. Frail and ill, the 88-year-old dictator is nearing the end of his life, but remains unwilling to name a successor, let alone cede control to a party. His preoccupation with power, too, is due in part to Mugabe’s rampant distrust even within his own party.
His concerns were confirmed when Wikileaks revealed communication between officials close to Mugabe and the United States’ ambassador. Mugabe’s spokesperson referred to events —and participating officials— as treasonous. This dissent internally is mirrored in the public distrust of Mugabe’s government. Most notably, ZANU-PF’’s treatment of the white population has raised the ire of domestic and international observers.
Targeted by the government’s controversial land reforms, many white landowners were forced to relocate, often moving to neighboring South Africa, when the measures began 12 years ago. Despite Mugabe’s pledge to redistribute the wealth and resources claimed to the public, however, critics claim the funds have lined the pockets of black farmers loyal to the government. But with diaspora groups playing an important role as main financier of revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, these grievances held by the exiled are not negligible.
In addition, Zimbabwe’s poor economic performance in 2011, falling from 9 percent growth in 2010 to 2.4 percent last year, according to The Economist, will only add sparks to a combustible atmosphere. With 72 percent of the population at or below the poverty line, the expanding economy had once provided hope for some that, even under an exploitative leader, steady economic growth would lead to economic development. This development would then improve the lives of average Zimbabweans.
Instead, the rising expectations —now dashed— have created a fissure in political structure that has squeezed the landlocked African country since Mugabe came to power 32 years ago. Late last year Mugabe announced that his ZANU (PF) government would seek elections in 2012, because the tense, power-sharing arrangement between Mugabe and Morgan Tsyangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change has “overstayed its welcome.”
Mugabe’s party recognizes that an election, before critical electoral reforms are completed, will likely benefit the ZANU-PF party, and strengthen his grip on power. Recognizing the likelihood that a Mugabe headed-leadership would reclaim power in Zimbabwe, opposition groups might prepare to change the country through direct action or protest. As history has shown, tensions tend to be highest around electoral periods, and this has certainly been the case in Zimbabwe’s past.
However, today a model of resistance —stubborn, bloody and driven by a relentless battle to break loose the tentacles of power— now exists as Zimbabweans confront the specter of life under ZANU-PF. So in June, instead of casting ballot in a game tipped in the dictator’s favor, Zimbabweans might fulfill the intentions of March 2011’s failed “Million Zimbabwean March.” This spring they have the chance to vote with their feet and stand united against a government, and in support of a country long overdue for change.