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Issue Date:  April 18, 2008

-- AP Photo/Mujahid Safodien

People stand in queues to buy food in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, April 1.

Uncertain leadership strains nerves in Zimbabwe

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Church groups have joined the chorus calling for the release of results from Zimbabwe’s March 29 presidential election, and for the incumbent Robert Mugabe to accept the results “graciously.”

The elections were expected to usher in a new beginning for millions here who for the past decade have known nothing but economic decline and human rights abuses.

But nearly two weeks after official polling closed, that dream for a bright future remained distant. With official results of the presidential election still unknown, Robert Mugabe -- in power since 1980 -- declared he would fight on in a presidential runoff that would pit him against longtime opponent Morgan Tsvangirai.

His declaration spurred wide speculation that Mugabe knew he had been defeated but was refusing to accept the results. The government-appointed Zimbabwe Election Commission is delaying the release of the official tally.

Uncertainty about the election continued to grow, with the police making daily appeals for the public to remain calm amid fears that the delay could trigger violence. Many here strongly believe Tsvangirai won the poll.

Catholic parishes began Sunday Masses April 6 with prayers for “renewed national leadership.” Mugabe is a practicing Catholic.

“People have heard enough. I’m so stressed today I don’t think I will be able to deliver the homily,” a priest told his congregation the weekend following the election. “Everybody knows who won. The people’s will must be respected,” the priest said.

The internationally respected Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, which has long been at odds with Mugabe for its human rights reporting, said that “delaying the presidential results is an attempt to subvert electoral processes and the people’s will.”

In an April 7 statement, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace criticized the delay. Noting that Zimbabweans have long suffered from near-economic collapse, Alouis Munyaradzi Chaumba, national director of the commission, said the election commission “appears to be abusing the legendary patience of the Zimbabwe people.”

“The integrity of the election body is now seriously under threat because of its disinclination to quickly make the results public and allay the fears and suspicions of the nation. If [the commission] ... is not driven by partisan interests, then it surely should release the results without any further equivocation,” Chaumba said.

Diplomats and the international community, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Kin-Moon, continue to raise concerns about the situation. Retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called on Mugabe to leave graciously.

The Christian Alliance, an ecumenical group of Zimbabwean churches, issued a statement the week after the election urging the release of the presidential election results.

For the first time since independence, results for the House of Assembly showed Mugabe had lost control of parliament to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF has said it will challenge parliamentary results in 16 constituencies, further raising political temperatures.

Under Mugabe’s reign, the Zimbabwean economy shrank to levels the World Bank says have never been seen in a country not at war, but the 84-year-old Mugabe blames the decade-old recession on former colonial power Britain and the United States, saying they are punishing him for taking land from whites and giving it to black peasants.

The writer’s name is being withheld because of the dangers of reporting in Zimbabwe.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008

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