Army officers kept Mugabe in runoff, participants say

President Robert Mugabe summoned his top security officials to a government training center near his rural home in central Zimbabwe on the afternoon of March 30. In a voice barely audible at first, he informed the leaders of the state security apparatus that had enforced his rule for 28 years that he had lost the presidential vote held the previous day.

Then Mugabe told the gathering he planned to give up power in a televised speech the next day, according to the written notes of one participant that were corroborated by two other people with direct knowledge of the meeting.

But Zimbabwe's military chief, Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, responded that the choice was not Mugabe's alone. According to firsthand accounts, Chiwenga told Mugabe his military would take control of the country to keep him in office or the president could contest a runoff election, directed in the field by senior army officers supervising a military-style campaign against the opposition.

Mugabe agreed to remain in the race and rely on the army to ensure his victory. During an April 8 military planning meeting, according to written notes and the accounts of participants, the plan was given a code name: CIBD. The acronym, which proved apt in the fevered campaign that unfolded over the following weeks, stood for: Coercion. Intimidation. Beating. Displacement.

In the three months between the March 29 vote and the June 27 runoff election, ruling-party militias under the guidance of 200 senior army officers battered the Movement for Democratic Change, bringing the opposition party's network of activists to the verge of oblivion. By election day, more than 80 opposition supporters were dead, hundreds were missing, thousands were injured and hundreds of thousands were homeless. Morgan Tsvangirai, the party's leader, dropped out of the contest and took refuge in the Dutch Embassy.

The ruling inner circle debated only in passing the consequences of the political violence on the country and on international opinion.

The military stood to lose wealth and influence if Mugabe bowed out.

The plan's first phase unfolded the week after the high-level meeting.

At first, the beatings with whips, striking with sticks, torture, and other forms of intimidation appeared consistent with past political violence. Little of it was fatal.

That changed May 5 in the remote farming village of Chaona, 65 miles north of the capital, Harare. The village of dirt streets had voted for Tsvangirai in the election's first round after decades of supporting Mugabe.

On the evening of May 5 – three days after Mugabe's government finally released the official results of the March 29 election – 200 Mugabe supporters rampaged through its streets. By the time the militia finished, seven people were dead and the injured bore the hallmarks of a new kind of political violence.

Women were stripped and beaten so viciously that sections of flesh fell away from their buttocks. Men's genitals became targets. The official postmortem report on Chaona opposition activist Aleck Chiriseri listed crushed genitals among the causes of death. Other men died the same way.

At the funerals for Chiriseri and the others, opposition activists noted the gruesome condition of the corpses. Some in the crowds believed soldiers trained in torture were behind the killings, not the more improvisational ruling-party youth or liberation war veterans who traditionally served as Mugabe's enforcers.

The same militias that attacked Chaona worked their way south through the rural district of Chiweshe, hitting Jingamvura, Bobo and, in the predawn hours of May 28, Kodzwa, where about 200 families live between two rivers.

The deaths mounted through May, and almost all of the fatalities were opposition activists. Tsvangirai's personal advance man, Tonderai Ndira, 32, was abducted and killed. Police in riot gear raided opposition headquarters in Harare, arresting hundreds of families that had taken refuge there.

Talk within the ruling party began predicting a landslide victory in the runoff vote, less than three weeks away.

On election day, Mugabe's militias drove voters to the polls and tracked through ballot serial numbers those who refused to vote or who cast ballots for Tsvangirai despite his boycott.

The 84-year-old leader took the oath of office two days later, for a sixth time.