A top Zimbabwean opposition official fled to Zambia on Wednesday but was denied asylum and is expected to face arrest at home as concerns rise over a government crackdown after last week’s disputed presidential election.
Tendai Biti, a former finance minister and a leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said he is going to be deported, according to Dewa Mavinga, southern Africa director with Human Rights Watch.
Mavhinga said Biti told him: “It looks like they have made a decision to hand us back to the junta. We are truly in God’s hands.”
Zambia’s foreign minister, Joseph Malanji, said the reasons Biti gave for seeking asylum “did not have merit, so he is being held in safe custody and we are trying to take him back to Zimbabwe.”
As legal and rights activists attempted to put together an urgent appeal, they questioned how an asylum case could be processed in mere hours.
Biti’s plight follows scenes of the military opening fire in the streets of Zimbabwe’s capital a week ago, killing six people, and growing opposition claims of harassment. The events have challenged assertions by newly elected President Emmerson Mnangagwa of a “flowering” of democracy after longtime leader Robert Mugabe stepped down in November under military pressure.
The United States’ top diplomat for Africa said he was “deeply troubled by credible reports that opposition supporters are being targeted by members of the Zimbabwean security forces”.
Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, in a series of posts on Twitter said he strongly urged authorities in Zambia to allow Biti to stay there until his asylum request can be “appropriately evaluated” or allow him safe passage to a third country.
The events come as the opposition MDC prepares to challenge in court Mnangagwa’s July 30 election victory, which it has described as fraudulent.
Biti, one of the most vocal government critics, had declared before the official election results were announced on Friday that opposition leader Nelson Chamisa had won, a claim also made by Chamisa himself.
“In a normal country, Chamisa would be sworn in right now,” Biti told reporters a day after the election.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has said it is illegal to release results before its own official announcement.
Mnangagwa was more restrained during the vote count, saying only that the situation looked positive. However, some reporting in state-run media declared him the winner before the commission did.
The opposition has seven days from the commission’s announcement to file a court challenge, and Chamisa lawyer Thabani Mpofu said the MDC will do so. That would delay Mnangagwa’s inauguration planned for Sunday.
Biti was named along with Chamisa in a search warrant issued last week that said they and several others were suspected of the crimes of “possession of dangerous weapons” and “subversive material” as well as “public violence”, according to a copy seen by The Associated Press.
Police raided the MDC headquarters on August 2, a day after the military rolled into Harare and dispersed opposition protesters by force, killing six people. They had been angered over the announcement that Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF party had won most of the seats in parliament.
“We condemn the murders of compatriots. We call for restraint,” Biti tweeted after the crackdown.
Biti’s arrest and the crackdown by the security services “have exacerbated an already volatile situation”, said Piers Pigou, senior consultant for southern Africa for the International Crisis Group. “This raises further concerns about the direction the government is moving at a time it needs to be providing leadership for all Zimbabweans.”
Chamisa on Wednesday night denounced the treatment of Biti, calling the “persecution” of him and other opposition leaders by the state “unjustified & unacceptable”.
International election observers and Human Rights Watch have condemned the violence and intimidation against opposition supporters, urging security forces to use restraint. Mnangagwa badly needs the approval of the foreign election observers to show the vote was credible so that international sanctions against the southern African nation could be lifted.
Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe was dogged by charges of rigged and fraudulent elections, along with violence against opposition figures. In one of the most famous incidents, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai suffered a fractured skull and internal bleeding in 2007 when he and other MDC leaders were arrested and beaten. He died of cancer earlier this year.
“We are back to 2008,” said Zimbabwean political analyst Alexander Rusero, referring to violence that marked that year’s elections. “Violence is the only language that this regime understands but these actions are killing any hopes of re-engaging with the West.”
Biti had said months before the election that the Zimbabwean military was casting a shadow over hopes for genuine reform.
He said that while the ouster of Mugabe after 37 years in power was welcome, the military takeover that led to his resignation set a dangerous precedent for the involvement of generals in civilian affairs.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” Biti said in June.
“We had a coup in November,” he added. “We didn’t seek to understand what it meant and we didn’t carry out political reform to make sure that another coup does not happen.”