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Mugabe seeks divine intervention as defeat stalks him

As the March Presidential poll looms and President Robert Mugabe continues to come under domestic and international pressure over his rule, the ageing leader has turned to the church to shore up his dwindling power base. Will divine intervention come to his assistance?
Rodrick Mukumbira

The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), dogged by the nightmare of an impending political defeat in elections set for March 9-10 and under domestic and international pressure over invasions of white farms among other issues, has turned to the church as its power base continues to dwindle. Efforts to woo the Church began in early January when the country's Youth Development, Gender and Employment Creation Ministry organised a national day of prayer.

This event was well attended by members of the African Apostolic Faith sect, several Pentecostal groups and the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe whose bishop, Norbert Kunonga delivered the main sermon. Conspicuous with its absence was the Roman Catholic Church and almost all the members of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC), a grouping of mainstream protestant churches.

The party's presidential candidate, the ageing Robert Mugabe could not be left out from this occasion. To spice up the occasion and according to analysts, in an effort to pull the crowds, the party invited popular gospel artist, Charles Charamba. To further lure the churches, the government announced that the National Day of Prayer should be a permanent fixture on the calendar.

But was the ruling party seeking divine intervention in the face of a looming defeat by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) or was it seeking spiritual cleansing in the face of vast human rights abuses, rape and murder being committed by its supporters and war veterans in the countryside? "Divine intervention is far from what ZANU-PF is seeking at the moment," says political scientist, Masipula Sithole. "What it is looking for is to legitimise its rule amid gross violations of human rights and a moral booster to cause hell for the opposition."

As the well-publicised gala proceeded in a posh Harare Hotel, ZANU-PF militia, trained by the youth ministry under the guise of youth empowerment, were unleashing terror in the city's high density suburbs where they were beating up those found without ZANU-PF membership cards. The prayer day may have appeared as a genuine gesture given the economic and social problems besieging the country following violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms. As it turned out, it was simply an anointing ceremony for the 77-year-old Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980. A representative of the African Apostolic Faith sect, Madzibaba Nzira, said Mugabe was God- chosen and no one could remove him except God himself. Stephen Mangwanya, a representative of the Pentecostal churches blessed Mugabe and his controversial two-year-old land resettlement Programme while an Anglican bishop, Kunonga called Mugabe "a real Christian". "We are calling on you for the total transfer of land and industry from the aliens to our indigenous people," he said.

For President Mugabe, this was an opportunity not to be missed. He used the chance to call for the "Africanisation of the Church". He lashed out at Britain and the United States calling on the Church to do away with Eurocentric gospels that "affirm the superiority of whites and opt for liberating theology that will set Africans free". "The nation is in your (Church) hands. The answer to your needs and aspirations is in your hands," said Mugabe.

ZANU-PF's marriage with the African Apostolic Faith sect dates back to the run up to the 2000 parliamentary elections when its chief campaign strategist then, the late Border converted to the sect. The sect has its roots in the country and derives its membership mainly from among the poor. It practises polygamy. Women in the sect always dress in white and the men maintain a long beard accompanied by a clean-shaven head.

Gezi's conversion (he died in a car accident in 2001), was widely proclaimed and ensured that the Vapostoli, as they are commonly called, had automatically become ZANU-PF members. The government has continued to appease the sect giving it land in every city to build churches and "donating" money for "projects" to sect members.

As a way of showing their loyalty to the party, the sect members are always at the airport if Mugabe is leaving the country or returning. They are also present when foreign delegations visit the country. The government's liaison with the Pentecostal churches began in 1999 when its leaders joined the aborted constitutional commission and supported a draft that gave Mugabe sweeping power to seize land, which was rejected in a referendum in February 2000.

To show its gratitude, Anglican church head Kunonga was appointed to his position controversially in 2001 when the government threw its weight behind him in place of a white reverend who clearly qualified for the appointment, following the retirement of the incumbent. Independent newspapers report that the church has been hit by divisions that threaten to split the church in Zimbabwe because of government interference.

On the other hand, ZANU-PF accuses the Roman Catholic Church of being too critical. Although Mugabe is a Catholic, the church has not been silent on issues of lawlessness being perpetrated by its supporters. It has also been critical of the land resettlement programme and human rights violations in occupied farms. Targeted by the ZANU-PF government's onslaught is Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, southern Zimbabwe, who the government accuses of using the pulpit to turn the tide to the opposition MDC.

ZANU-PF has made it clear that it has nothing in common with the Council of Churches (ZCC),. It accuses this grouping of protestant churches of forming the top opposition party MDC. While the government was in the process of reviewing the country's constitution, the ZCC also organised their own Constitutional Assembly. Meanwhile, President Mugabe has ignored pastoral letters from Catholic fathers. He has also snubbed meetings organised by the ZCC to end the three-year impasse between the government and white commercial farmers. But analysts say defeat stares ZANU-PF in the face come the presidential elections set for March 9 and 10.

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