THE official version of how a popular Zimbabwean politician died is simple. As he drove home from a meeting about next week’s presidential election, Edward Chindori-Chininga, an MP, suddenly lost control of his silver jeep.
The vehicle veered across a T-junction, ploughed through shrubs and smashed into a tree. His head hit the windscreen. He died instantly.
The unofficial version, the one discussed in hushed tones by Zimbabweans, is far more intriguing — and disturbing.
Chindori-Chininga, 58, a former United Nations official who loved to cook French food, was murdered by Robert Mugabe’s thugs, because he dared to speak out against the greed and venality at the heart of the autocratic president’s inner circle.
The assassination, say opposition figures and human rights activists, was set up to look like a car accident. But the airbags never deployed; the windscreen was barely cracked; and the damage to the car was too minimal to cause death.
Days before his death, Chindori-Chininga had released a damning report on Zimbabwe’s diamond trade, adding weight to claims that senior officials in Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party plundered millions of dollars from the mines.
“It is a mess. We don’t know what happened,” a grieving member of his family told The Sunday Times last week in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital.
Whether an assassination or an accident, the death of the outspoken MP, who was expelled in 2011 from Mugabe’s party, has reignited allegations that money looted from the diamond trade has been diverted into a “war chest” used by the president and the state security apparatus to crush dissent ahead of the elections, set for July 31.
It is perhaps the timing of Chindori-Chininga’s death that has aroused the most suspicion. On June 10 a mole who claims to be part of Mugabe’s inner circle posted a warning on his Facebook page that hardliners in Mugabe’s party planned to “sink” Chindori-Chininga.
A few days later the politician handed parliament his explosive report. Compiled over four years, it claimed that hundreds of millions of pounds pledged to the treasury by the diamond companies failed to reach its coffers. One “conservative” estimate puts the total amount that had disappeared this way since 2008 at £1.3bn.
It also accused senior members of Zanu-PF of trying to block the investigation, lying to parliament and refusing to respond to his questions.
Chindori-Chininga’s report appeared to add credibility to claims that shady Chinese investors gave intelligence chiefs millions of dollars in off-budget payments in return for diamonds and access to property deals and the cotton industry. Senior opposition figures believe it sealed the MP’s fate.
A week after its release Chindori-Chininga’s wife received a phone call telling her that the father of her four daughters had crashed his jeep. Later that evening her 18-year-old daughter discovered, via Facebook, that her father had died.
Fuelling suspicions of foul play, two passengers, said by police to have walked away from the crash with only minor injuries, have apparently disappeared. Family members say they have been unable to find out any details about either passenger. Nor have they received the police report on Chindori-Chininga’s death.
“If they [Mugabe’s party] feel strongly you are a threat, they will assassinate you. This is their modus operandi,” said a Zimbabwean political activist with close ties to government figures.
The activist’s comments tally with those of Tom McDonald, a former US ambassador to Zimbabwe, who said Mugabe’s regime had a knack of overseeing “strange car crashes” involving opposition figures. “It’s sort of how they get rid of people they don’t like,” he told CNN after Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), lost his wife Susan in a car crash in 2009.
For many, Chindori- Chininga’s demise illustrates why Mugabe, 89, who has run Zimbabwe since the end of white rule in 1980, is so desperate to cling to power — and why the security services are so keen to help him achieve this.
For the past 4 years Mugabe has been locked in an uncomfortable power-sharing agreement with Tsvangirai, 61. After the run-off for the last presidential election, in June 2008, descended into arbitrary killings, torture and looting, the MDC leader withdrew, saying his supporters risked their life if they voted for him.
In January 2009, after months of negotiations with Mugabe, Tsvangirai agreed to join a coalition government as prime minister. Relations between the two men have broken down over the past months, and Tsvangirai has indicated he would be unwilling to remain in the coalition after the election.
In a newspaper interview last week he accused authorities of padding the electoral roll with dead voters and other forms of vote-rigging, saying Mugabe was “determined to retain power by whatever means”.
Although observers are allowed in from elsewhere in Africa, those from the EU and America are barred.
The stakes in this election are certainly huge. Since the discovery of vast diamond fields in 2006, Zimbabwe has become the world’s fourth-largest producer. The industry could generate as much as £2bn a year, according to experts.
Critics say these vast revenues have given birth to a “parallel government” that operates outside the state’s control. Carefully nurtured by Mugabe, this patronage network is made up of a cabal of serving and retired army, police and intelligence commanders who swear allegiance to the president. Before his death, Chindori-Chininga referred to this clique as the “barons of Zimbabwe”.
It is this loyalty to the president among the security services’ top brass, some of whom sit on the boards of and own shares in the country’s largest mining companies, that threatens to undermine the credibility of the election.
“These senior commanders have built mansions in leafy suburbs,” said a political activist with strong connections to both sides. “They own huge farms. They don’t want to lose their world. This is basically why they support Mugabe.”
Despite fears that this election, like the last, could descend into violence, a remarkable calm reigns over Harare. In the affluent suburbs, street sellers hawk strawberries and oranges to well-heeled passers- by. Supermarket shelves are packed with imported food.
“Before 2008, all we had in the shops was toilet paper, condoms and firewood,” said Kimberley Nyatsanga, a young political activist, recalling a time when shoppers carried around wheelbarrows piled with cash after hyperinflation hit a surreal 213,000,000%. Yet the class — and income — divide is wide: while businessmen drive through the city’s broad, tree-lined boulevards in 4x4s, the poor struggle on 75p a day selling worms for fishermen at the roadside.
Oddly, a white, downtrodden hobo, apparently an old farmhand in the days before Mugabe’s thugs seized the white farms, asked me for a dollar outside a supermarket brimming with luxury goods.
“We feel sorry for the whites,” said an old man. “They poured so much into their farms and then had them taken away.” Other whites appear to have weathered the storm, dining in poorly patronised upmarket restaurants that serve Italian food and American cheeseburgers, places far from the reach of most Zimbabweans.
Beneath this veneer of calm, there are already signs that the security services are beginning to meddle in the election process to ensure Mugabe triumphs. Cases of harassment and intimidation against human rights groups and opposition supporters are on the rise, according to monitors.
Soldiers march through towns chanting pro-Zanu slogans; police have arrested opposition supporters and, in some areas, have prevented the MDC from holding rallies.
The extent of the harassment is sometimes absurd. On Wednesday police arrested Memory Nyambuya, a young female activist, for “leaning on a Zanu-PF poster” in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe’s third largest city.
There are other more sinister tactics at play. Last Sunday a human rights activist died after his car was apparently rammed from the road by two vehicles as he travelled to a protest near his home town of Chivhu.
Many believe it is the constant threat of violence, coupled with what is expected to be widespread vote-rigging, that will ultimately stop a change in the country’s leadership.
“Violence is there but it is not as pronounced as 2008,” one analyst said. “Mugabe needs the world to declare these elections free and fair.
“He only needs to use the threat of violence to scare people off. It is subtle but effective. People’s memories here are still fresh.”