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Mugabe spies have a secret

Dixon is a Times staff writer.

The man is nervous. He’s from the “President’s Office,” and that doesn’t mean serving tea to Robert Mugabe. It’s Zimbabwe’s version of the KGB: the Central Intelligence Organization.

He says all his phones -- cell and land-line -- are bugged, so we’re meeting in secret at a house belonging to a go-between in suburban Harare. His voice is barely audible, and he can’t sit still. As loyalty to Mugabe wanes, disillusioned insiders like the CIO man are becoming more willing to speak out. Still, he’s worried that talking to a foreign journalist could land him in serious trouble.

In Zimbabwe, even the spies are watched.

I’m worried too, in case the meeting backfires. Mugabe’s regime routinely denies foreign journalists entry to Zimbabwe, so I have no option but to work here illegally, undercover. There’s always an element of risk.

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The CIO casts a long shadow. Small, everyday encounters become fraught with fear. Common coincidences are magnified into something sinister. Everyone knows how the CIO guys work: You never notice them until you spot a car behind you, then drive around the block a few times and find it’s still there.

There are plenty of terrifying stories about what happens to the people who are arrested, ranging from lengthy interrogation to torture. So I’m a little taken aback by the man from the President’s Office. He turns out to be thirtysomething, educated, articulate and urbane. Had he been born in any other country, he might have found a career at a bank, a think tank, a law firm. Instead, he learned about dirty tricks and disenchantment.

For years, the Mugabe regime has used the CIO to undermine and frighten the opposition, keep an eye on journalists and neutralize threats. But these days the name President’s Office is a misnomer, says the senior officer, who, unsurprisingly, speaks on condition of anonymity. He estimates that 60% to 70% of CIO officers -- all but the hard-line ideologues -- no longer back Mugabe.

That the dark heart of Mugabe’s web of fear is abandoning him underscores how tenuous his grip on power has become.

Like most of the population in this country besieged by inflation of 231 million percent -- from the starving rural unemployed to hungry soldiers to bureaucrats whose salaries don’t cover their bus fares -- the CIO staffers want change.

“There are a lot of professional [CIO] people who feel opposed to what’s going on,” the senior officer says. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t conform, or don’t obey your instructions, see what I mean? It’s disgruntlement, not rebellion.

“The current system has ceased to be functional. When you come to that stage, you obviously want change. Service delivery is dismal. Education is worst affected. There are no drugs in public institutions,” he says, reeling off the problems like an opposition speechwriter.

CIO headquarters, a drab, nine-story red-brick building on Selous Avenue in central Harare, has many small windows, like eyes gazing at the city. Just walking by evokes a chill.

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Members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change obsess about the organization. They avoid mention of meeting places in phone calls, talk in code, use encrypted e-mail and drive circuitous routes with an eye on the rear-view mirror.

Several years ago, MDC supporters said they were certain the party had been infiltrated by CIO spies determined to undermine the opposition by sowing discord among members.

They are right to be concerned, the CIO officer says. “Infiltration is the name of the game.”

He guffaws at the idea that the MDC might find that shocking. “It’s to be expected. It’s very normal.” His term for it is “information management.”

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“With the opposition and some influential members of society, there is a standard procedure. It’s keeping an eye on everything they do. You want to know what’s happening and where, so that you can win.”

Likewise, he says, the opposition should expect plenty of dirty tricks in any power-sharing government.

If such a government comes to pass, that is. Even though Mugabe was forced into a power-sharing deal after African observers rejected the results of the June presidential election, it’s an idea that neither the regime nor the opposition is comfortable with, as witnessed in the tortuous negotiations ever since about who gets control of the economic posts and security forces.

Meanwhile, Mugabe holds on. The only solid obstacle he faces is of his own making: the economy, which is in such chaos that there’s not a lot of actual governing he can do.

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The man from the CIO confirms that the agency set a trap for the former Roman Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, one of Mugabe’s most vociferous critics. A CIO camera was placed in Ncube’s bedroom last year, and he was filmed in bed with a married woman. Photos were splashed across the state-owned Herald newspaper, which said the film was made by a private detective hired by the woman’s husband. Ncube resigned and has been silent ever since.

“If you are not only outspoken but staunchly against the head of state, surely things can go wrong,” the CIO man says. “You should be on guard. When you shoot at someone, you can expect them to shoot back.”

Hard-liners in the agency were crowing about Ncube’s humiliation for days, the officer says.

“There was a kind of happiness that this outspoken priest had been exposed. For others, this didn’t move the economy one inch. It was just a stunt, something you would rejoice over for one hour. It didn’t achieve anything.”

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The officer has enough education and seniority to put him above having to get his hands dirty, like the agents who interrogate and torture suspects. He’s polite, sophisticated and wears a crisp suit.

He joined the CIO because of political ambition. Now, with Mugabe fading, he fears that his career in the CIO might not get him far after all.

Slowly and cautiously, he is trying get a foot into the opposition camp as well, by leaking information to the MDC’s security wing through an intermediary. But it’s a nerve-racking business, given the ruling party’s predilection for watching its own as avidly as it watches the enemy.

In years past, the officer says, the CIO higher-ups saw opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as a buffoon. They poked fun at his chubby cheeks and looked down on his lack of education. To them, he was no match for Mugabe, with his numerous degrees and stinging rhetoric.

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But most people in the CIO don’t joke about Tsvangirai anymore. They poke fun at Mugabe.

“People talk openly [about it] in the organization. There are certain things you would not have said openly, like statements against his excellency the president. Ah, but these days, people even say that.

“They say the old man should go. They even use, in a derogatory way, the term mudhara. It means ‘old man,’ but it’s not a respectful word.”

Tsvangirai is “not seen as very bright, but he’s accepted because of the leadership change that everyone wants to see. There’s no alternative. He is the alternative to the system. By virtue of that, he’s accepted.”

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During the elections this year, CIO officers cruised around Harare, the capital, in search of suspicious-looking foreigners. I picked up a tail near the U.S. Embassy shortly after the March 29 vote. To make sure, I pulled suddenly into a coffee shop parking lot, without using my turn signal.

The car screeched in behind me. I walked into the coffee shop. I had a coffee, peeked out, and the car was still there. I ordered more coffee and sipped it slowly. It was still there.

I dawdled on and on. It was getting late. The coffee shop was about to close. I decided to go to a supermarket, and trawl among the almost empty shelves. Then maybe I could go somewhere for dinner. But where next, if he was still following me?

My tail, however, had a short attention span. He was gone by the time I left the coffee shop.

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The CIO has always been one of the best-funded agencies. Regular police might struggle to find fuel for cars or charge sheets or typewriters that work, but the CIO has computers and reliable transportation.

“If you compare it with other ministries, you might say that the organization is well resourced. But if you compare 2000 and 2008, you will see that they [resources] are depleted,” the officer says.

“You start having situations where you are fighting for resources. We are looking at a situation where you are supposed to do A, B and C in a specific time. But where there are no resources, you can’t do A, B and C. What happens is compromised or half-baked information management. You end up coming up with a more crude than refined process.”

He sees the violence unleashed during the recent elections as primitive, crude and counterproductive. The so-called securocrats, he says, “are not so intellectually gifted; they’re shortsighted.”

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“It’s not easy to align yourself with a diabolical or cruel way of doing things.”

When he joined the CIO, he was hoping for a speedy political trajectory in the ruling ZANU-PF party -- and by that measure he has been successful. But he’s come to despise the deadening political conformity and stifling of criticism in the party.

To him that’s the systemic flaw that is killing Zimbabwe: the crushing of ideas.

“What has always happened -- which I think is the weakness in the system -- is that when a decision is taken, wrongly or rightly, you will have to end up conforming if you want to remain part of the group.”

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So in public, he remains part of the system. But not in his heart.

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com


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