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After 3 Decades Of Mugabe, Could Zimbabwe Get A New Leader?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Detroit's bankruptcy last week made headlines because it was the biggest in history, but now comes the question of why this happened and what, if anything, this means for other American cities. We'll hear two very different views about this in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to turn to two significant elections in Africa this week. The West African country of Mali is being praised for a smooth presidential vote this past weekend. It's the first election since a coup last year led to a violent rebellion in the North. Meanwhile, campaigning has ended in Zimbabwe, as that Southern African country prepares to go to the polls on Wednesday.

There, Robert Mugabe is seeking his sixth presidential term in office against longtime opposition leader and current Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. You might remember that the two agreed to a power-sharing arrangement after the last election, which was marked by extensive violence and complaints about abuse of opposition figures.

NPR's Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in the capital of Zimbabwe, Harare, for the vote, and she's with us now. Ofeibea, welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings and I am speaking to you from State House, the seat of government - the presidency, because President Robert Mugabe has just held a press conference that's ended, what, maybe about 15, 20 minutes ago, Michel.

MARTIN: What's the mood there?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, yesterday was a bright and sunny day for the last day of campaigning. Today, it's overcast and gray and seems a lot calmer. But Zimbabweans, almost to a man and woman, are saying they are ready to vote. They are ready to vote for their new leader, and you have President Robert Mugabe in power for the past 33 years, since independence from Britain, saying that he is assured a victory, and his main political opponent, with whom he's been in a power-sharing deal, Morgan Tsvangirai, saying that his party, MDC-T, is very sure of victory. So that's where things stand just hours before the polls open.

MARTIN: How has that coalition government actually functioned, Ofeibea? I mean, I think many people remember your reporting from the region that things were in dire straits, economically, at the time of the last election. I mean, there were terrible shortages. People weren't being - you know, government workers weren't being paid.

I mean, hyperinflation was such that you could take out, you know, a wheelbarrow full of money in the morning, it would be worthless by afternoon. How has that coalition government really worked, and what is the state of the economy right now?

QUIST-ARCTON: It was a stormy political marriage for most of the past four-and-a-half years. I was here at State House when Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as Robert Mugabe's prime minister after the violent elections, as you said, of 2008. And Morgan Tsvangirai's party pulled out after he won the first round, but they have managed to stick together, despite all sorts of problems in the marriage and there has been no divorce, right up until yesterday when this coalition ended.

But as you know, Zimbabwe has been through very, very difficult times. As you said, you know, people were bartering grain, wheat, maize, cornmeal for clothes from the city. Things were terrible. You saw people who - their shirt collars were completely frayed, heels were completely worn. There was no fuel. There was no money, but for the past year or so, the economy has been looking up. The Zimbabwe dollar that you mentioned that people used to carry cartloads of is now history.

It's the U.S. dollar that is being used here and now there is food. People do have food to eat, and many Zimbabweans say to me, you know what, we've got peace now. It may not be ideal. Things are still - there is still tension, especially between the two main political parties and with the military saying that they will never accept Morgan Tsvangirai.

Some of the policing leaders and military leaders say they will never accept Tsvangirai as the leader of Zimbabwe because he doesn't have struggle credentials. He didn't fight for the Independence War from Britain. But most Zimbabweans are saying, you know, it's time to look forward. We have been through hell, but we have lived through hell and we have come up. Now is the time to focus on the people and on the children who are our future.

MARTIN: It's such an interesting story. I mean, Robert Mugabe is 89 years old, in his sixth decade of serving as the president, and of course, Morgan Tsvangirai has had his own difficulties after losing his wife in a car accident. I mean, he's been embroiled in a number of scandals where people - involving women, and money, and so forth. Do you feel comfortable forecasting, Ofeibea? Who do you think will win?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, not at all. It depends who you speak to. You speak to President Mugabe's party, they said, sure victory. You speak to Morgan Tsvangirai's party, they say, we are the new brushes that are going to sweep out the old. You speak to all of the Zimbabweans, they say, we want a free and fair vote, we want our ballots to count. In the past, there has been rigging - alleged rigging. In the past, there has been violence. We want an end to all that.

We want to choose our leader, and whoever it is that wins, that is the person we want to be our president, but we'll see. If no one candidate wins outright in this first round of the election tomorrow, Wednesday, 31st of July, there will be a runoff in September. But both sides, as I've said, are saying they expect to win outright victory, round one.

MARTIN: Final question, let's head to Mali. And it looks like the country's former prime minister, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, is in the lead as the votes are being counted there. Although, rivals have said that they think a runoff will be called there, as well. Can you just tell us a little bit about him?

QUIST-ARCTON: IBK (French ph) is a very well-known political personality in Mali. He's known by his initials, IBK, and he's a politician of huge repute. But you're hearing a lot of people saying he is the candidate of the coup-makers. He is supported by the military. He says, I am here to serve all Malians.

But he's, of course, one of 27 candidates, and after the turbulence that we have witnessed in Mali, the takeover of the North by Jihadi, the coup last year and the French-led intervention since January, Malians want peace. But they know that terrorism or - terrorism, especially in the Sahel, in the desert north, is a possibility.

America and many other countries are saying we must all club together with Mali, and with West Africa, to stop the threat of a country like Mali, that was known for democracy and stability, although it imploded last year - to make sure that countries are not taken over by people who do not have the interest of either West Africa or further afield, at heart.

MARTIN: Finally, Ofeibea, do you think Keita, or IBK, will be accepted as the new leader of the country, as he believes he is in the lead? Will he be accepted, do you think?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, you know, he hasn't won, yet. He might go to a second round in August. I think Malians are saying, you know, they feel that they were let down by their political leaders, that the West and others said that Mali was this democratic model for Africa, whilst there was so much corruption and problems going on underneath. They say they want an end to all of that. What they want is transparency. They want a leader who is going to propel their country forward, and whoever that is, if he's the person that the people choose, so be it.

MARTIN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's Africa correspondent. She was kind enough to join us from the capital of Zimbabwe, Harare. Ofeibea, thank you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Looks as if President Mugabe is just coming out, so let me rush and see if we can doorstep him.

MARTIN: Keep us posted.

QUIST-ARCTON: Have a good show. Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.