HARARE, Zimbabwe — With five of his supporters dead in the last few days alone, the leader of Zimbabwe's political opposition threatened Wednesday to retaliate if attacks by ruling party militants don't stop.
"We cannot stand by and watch while our people are being murdered," Morgan Tsvangirai, the president of the Movement for Democratic Change, told reporters in this capital city. "We shall devise a strategy to protect ourselves. We shall take this silence to their doorstep."
The deaths come against a backdrop of escalating political tension triggered by the invasion of hundreds of white-owned commercial farms by thousands of black squatters. Tsvangirai said that two of the party's supporters were beaten to death Tuesday by followers of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party and that another opposition member was killed Monday night.
The deaths of two others had already been reported this week, bringing the death toll in more than two months of violence to nine. The victims have included commercial farmers, farm laborers and opposition supporters.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has backed the farm invasions, arguing that the squatters, who are led by veterans of the nation's guerrilla war for independence, are simply eager to claim ancestral land stolen from them under British colonial rule, which ended in 1980. Whites, who make up a small minority of Zimbabwe's 12 million population, own about a third of the nation's productive land.
Mugabe Accused of Seeking Electoral Gain
But critics charge that Mugabe is using the land invaders to intimidate rural residents into voting for the ruling party in upcoming parliamentary elections--expected to take place in May.
Foreign diplomats, analysts and government opponents warn that the strong-arm tactics aimed at ensuring Mugabe's political survival will inevitably spell doom for the country's already flagging economy as investors begin to forsake Zimbabwe for more stable markets and the international community brands the African nation as a pariah.
"The state of the economy is very delicate," said John Robertson, a respected Zimbabwean economist. "If it were a [hospital] patient, it would be in intensive care, knocked out on the football field where the government is kicking it."
On Wednesday, tobacco growers dealt a blow to the economy when they failed to deliver the usual quantity of the country's top foreign-exchange earner to the first auction of the year for the crop. The small portion of tobacco sent to Harare underscored the fear and uncertainty of farmers, who said the land seizures have disrupted operations. Grading of tobacco ahead of the sales had come to a halt.
Only 7,000 bales of tobacco, compared with the usual 90,000 bales, were delivered in advance of Wednesday's opening auction, because farmers were doubtful of government assurances to provide police protection when transporting the crop.
"[We] are committed to working within the framework of the law," said David Hasluck, director of the Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe. "But as recent developments show, the president and the veterans seem to be able to act outside the law."
Nationwide, inflation, interest rates and unemployment are all well above 50%. Hospitals are without medicines, schools are without books, and the infrastructure--once relatively sound--is beginning to crumble.
"We have an economic crisis that the government is putting as a second issue," Tsvangirai said. "And if you have an economic crisis, you're not going to solve the political crisis."
"If we don't have elections, our country will go bang. We can't go on like this," Hasluck added.
Martial Law Is Goal, Many Believe
But many here believe that Mugabe wants the country to explode, because by creating a certain level of anarchy he could declare martial law and cancel the parliamentary elections, thus--at least temporarily--retaining his grip on power. With his popularity falling, a cash crunch and no new initiatives, opponents say, the ruling party is acting out of desperation.
"The arrows that they have got left in their quiver [are] land, race and violence, and they're using all of them together," said Michael Auret, an opposition party candidate and former director of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe.
More than 1,000 white-owned farms have been occupied since February. Some have been burned and their owners beaten. Although their leader has asked the squatters to desist from violence, in recent days the invaders have concentrated their attacks on the black farm laborers rather than the white owners.
"The result is that no real work can take place on the farms," commercial farmer Harry Milbank said.
Farmers, Field Hands to Blame, Officials Say
Government officials and supporters, parroting Mugabe's rhetoric, argue that the violence has been provoked by the farmers and their field hands.
"It is these workers who have been misled, misguided by white farmers," Joyce Mujuru, the country's acting minister of land and agriculture, recently told a local newspaper. "The veterans are just retaliating."
Agrippa Gava, executive director of the Zimbabwean National Liberation War Veterans Assn., echoed that belief. "The Rhodesian die-hards have become violent, and the people who are occupying the land have to defend themselves," he said, referring to Zimbabwe's colonial name, Rhodesia. "It is not the policy of our war veterans to go around killing people."
Britain has promised to increase aid to Zimbabwe for land reforms by $57 million over the next two years if the farm occupations cease and the government agrees to a fair transfer of land. British officials are scheduled to meet with Zimbabwean ministers today to discuss the issue.