Dons roused anti-Mugabe camp

June 30, 2000

Outspoken academics in Zimbabwe were at the forefront of opposition to Robert Mugabe's government in the crisis-torn months preceding last weekend's elections. They played a key role in generating open debate and analysis while the ruling party waged a campaign of oppression.

Academics and students have locked horns with the government for more than a decade. Many of them have been detained or continually threatened.

Student protests against state excesses, a deteriorating economy and corruption, among other issues, caused violent clashes with the police in the 1990s. Recently, angry students engaged in a verbal spat with the government on the need to vote in home constituencies.

"There has been ongoing psychological warfare between the state and academics," said Alfred Nhema, chair of politics and administration at the University of Zimbabwe, the country's largest university.

"We are hoping that with a viable opposition in parliament, the pressure will be off us to fill the political void created in 1987, when Zimbabwe's two main parties merged to create a one-party state," he said.

Free and fair elections were impossible in Zimbabwe, where millions of voters defied intimidation last weekend in the biggest turnout since Mugabe's victory in 1980, when Zimbabwe gained indpendence from Britain.

Human rights organisations said the poll was seriously compromised by electoral fraud and a terror campaign to crush opposition. It was waged over months by the ruling Zanu-PF, which panicked at the prospect of a serious electoral challenge after citizens voted against constitutional changes in February's referendum.

Monitors recorded 16,000 human rights violations during the election campaign, among them 35 deaths, 2,280 assaults and 2,409 death threats. They blamed Zanu-PF supporters, officials and militia groups for some 94 per cent of cases of violence.

Intellectuals - especially those in the fields of politics and law - and students have always been heavily opposed to one-party statism, said Dr Nhema, a Zimbabwean who studied in Canada and the United States and taught there before returning home in 1996.

"Since then, the intellectual community has been admired by the wider community and has been expected to provide an alternative voice, highlighting state excesses through analysis, pressure and criticism. Academics have played a leading role in political development and in explaining to the public what their rights and obligations are," Dr Nhema said.

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