Springtime for Mugabe

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.

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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.

Nearly complete: A war photographer’s Libyan “Revolution.”

Ten years ago when Denton stood on New York University’s campus as a new student at Tisch School for the Arts’ department of photography and imaging, he was thinking about pursuing a career in fashion photography when the planes hit the Twin Towers.

Woman looks at photographs of Libya's "Arab Spring" at Revolution, a gallery featuring the work of freelance photojournalist Bryan Denton on October 20, 2011. (Photo: Adam McCauley | Columbia Journalist)
As images of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s murdered body were shared around the world, they were noticeably absent from the collections of framed photographs on opening night of the photo exhibit called “Revolution” in Manhattan.

This was the first significant moment in the last six months of the Libyan uprising upon which Bryan Denton wasn’t able to frame in his lens.

“Part of me wishes I was there,” said Denton, when asked how it felt to miss the dictator’s death at the hands of rebel forces.

As a freelance photojournalist, Denton’s work has been featured in a range of publications, from Time magazine to the New Republic. But his photographs from Libya – shot in part for the New York Times – have garnered attention from many of his colleagues for their quality and story-telling capacity.

“Bryan’s work from a string of contested Libyan towns and cities has repeatedly brought readers inside the war in ways few on the beat have matched,” wrote C.J. Chivers, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, in an article for the New York Times Lens blog in May. Chivers worked with Denton in Libya this spring.

Denton photographs illustrate his willingness to be on the ground at the center of crisis – capturing the streets of Libya’s besieged capital Tripoli, or conflict-ridden Misrata, the site of innumerable battles between rebel forces and the government. His demeanor, knowledge of the region, and ability to speak Arabic allowed him to gain the access and trust of the Libyans he photographed.

His proximity to the conflict comes through in the gallery’s first frame: a dark-haired rebel perched atop a wind-blown sandy mound, wearing sunglasses, jeans and coat, holds an AK-47 trained over the horizon. Denton appears to be no further than 15 feet from the rebel when he took the shot.

Other photographs feature rebels sitting, smoking, firing their weapons down debris-filled streets and or watching intensely from the windows of passing cars. The gallery, which shows empty towns, broken homes and neighborhoods in Libya, is interspersed with moments of celebration, as rebel forces took over Gadhafi’s compound at the end of August, for instance.

Ten years ago when Denton stood on New York University’s campus as a new student at Tisch School for the Arts’ department of photography and imaging, he was thinking about pursuing a career in fashion photography when the planes hit the Twin Towers.

“The world got infinitely bigger that day,” said Denton. “I wanted to explore.”

This exploration started with a change in academic focus, and led him to engage in a world that was foreign, politically complicated and constantly in flux.

Denton went on to study Arabic and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and spent a semester in Amman, Jordan, before graduating in 2005. He then relocated to Middle East, and began accepting freelance jobs covering conflict in Afghanistan, Georgia, Lebanon, Iraq and finally Libya. He now lives in Beirut.

“We are watching a shifting paradigm,” said Denton, of the Middle East today. “There is a lot of hope and a lot of fear.”

For family members, Denton’s success in capturing and cataloguing events like the Libyan revolution seemed inevitable.

“When I look back, I can’t imagine him doing anything else,” Margi Denton, 57, said of her son’s choice of profession, given his studies on the Middle East, knowledge of the language, and love of photography.

Bryan Denton’s stay in New York is only temporary – he’ll be here a week before heading back to Lebanon. While he doesn’t know the location yet, Denton expects to be back on the ground, camera in hand, soon.

Even with Gadhafi’s death, thought by many to be the end of the revolution, Denton hasn’t crossed Libya off his list of conflict areas.

“The hard part will be fighting for the peace,” Denton said, while glancing around the room at his prints.

Before being whisked away for another round of introductions, or reintroductions, Denton pointed to the two images in the gallery he thought most relevant to understanding the chances for peace in post-Gadhafi Libya.

The first is a photograph taken of words, scribbled in Arabic, on a wall inside a small home. The text describes a group of armed fighters thought loyal to Gadhafi. The text also includes instructions for the liberating rebels to identify and eliminate the forces friendly to the government.

The second image is a wide-angle shot of the main street in Tawarga, Libya, a town thought to be pro-Gadhafi. While some inhabitants abandoned their homes, rebel forces had driven others out. Whoever resisted was killed.

“It’s fitting that it ended in cold blood,” said Denton about Gadhafi’s death. “I wouldn’t have expected anything more from the rebels.”

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Revolution will be on display at the Tisch School of the Arts, 721 Broadway, from October 20, 2011 to November 19, 2011. The gallery is free and open to the public.

Note: Nearly Complete was originally published at http://www.columbiajournalist.org.