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March 16, 2008

Talking 'bout a revolution

Zblog

Deep in southern Zimbabwe the other night, I sat in a hotel bar and watched a happy hour that seemed extraordinary. Men in the bright yellow shirts of an opposition political campaign stood two and three deep at the bar, ordering round after round of beer and boasting of their candidate’s chances in the upcoming presidential election.

We were in Masvingo, a four-hour drive south of Harare, the capital. The men had come from a rally at the fairgrounds nearby that had gone off peacefully and uninterrupted. A young guitarist in a blue visor belted out a succession of classics including “Let it Be” and “Talking ‘Bout a Revolution.” Outside, the opposition candidate, Simba Makoni, sat in a courtyard with his aides, chewed on fish and plotted campaign strategy.

I had to remind myself that I was in Zimbabwe, which Robert Mugabe has ruled with a clenched, unforgiving fist for 28 years. The hotel is owned by a member of Mugabe’s all-powerful ZANU-PF party, from which Makoni defected last month. His candidacy poses perhaps the most serious challenge ever to Mugabe’s rule, because as recently as 2002 Makoni served in the Cabinet as finance minister.

Not long ago, the Zimbabwean guys I was traveling with told me, such a scene would have been unthinkable. But no matter what happens on election day March 29, I felt that I was witnessing the death throes of a dictatorship.

After a catastrophic few years that have seen the economy crumble and inflation soar to 200,000 percent, Mugabe's most powerful political weapon – fear – appears to be eroding. To understand what 200,000 percent inflation means, a journalist friend I was traveling with, N., said that on Friday, he had lunch at a hotel in Harare , where a local beer cost 2 million Zimbabwean dollars (less than $1). He passed by the hotel after work the same day and the same beer was going for more than 4 million.

J., a public relations manager and Makoni supporter, came up to me at the hotel bar. "People are fed up," he said. "People used to be afraid to vote against Mugabe, but now they feel they have nothing to lose. Life has become too difficult."

There's no chance that Mugabe wins a fair election. But no one knows whether he will rig the result to stay in power, as most people believe he's done in the past. Still, there's a distinct going-through-the-motions feel about this once fearsome dictatorship. In Masvingo today, authorities briefly tried to force the main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, to move his rally to 8 a.m., saying that the ground was needed for a soccer match. This was a classic Mugabe technique to stifle and intimidate his opponents in the past. But the government apparently relented, and the rally (pictured above) went off as planned at 10 a.m., with a few thousand white-clad supporters in attendance.

Late Saturday night in the hotel, N. identified the government spy that Mugabe's dreaded intelligence service, the CIO, had assigned to watch the Makoni people. A stout, middle-aged woman with arms like sausages, she sat in a corner of the lobby looking bored for much of the night. When N. struck up a conversation, she confided that she was annoyed at having been transferred from Harare, and that she hadn't had sex in three years. It seems that even being a Mugabe spy isn't what it used to be.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

shashank

Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.



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