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Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's Main Opposition Leader, Dies At 65

Feb 14, 2018
Originally published on February 14, 2018 6:05 pm
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Zimbabwe's main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has died. He was 65 years old and had been suffering from colon cancer. He was the arch-political rival of longtime President Robert Mugabe, and Tsvangirai came to symbolize courageous resistance to Mugabe's repressive regime. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has this remembrance.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Try as hard as he might, Morgan Tsvangirai never managed to oust Robert Mugabe at the ballot box. But the charismatic labor-union-leader-turned-politician came close as he ran the Movement for Democratic Change party he founded in 2000. Tsvangirai's many opposition supporters, rights campaigners and observers were convinced he won outright the first round of the 2008 presidential election against Mugabe. Tsvangirai told NPR at the time he was confident of victory and change in Zimbabwe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MORGAN TSVANGIRAI: Wherever I go, people are despairing. People say, look, my son; we've had enough - all the women talking about, we've had enough. We are suffering. There's no food. We have nothing. Literally the desperation is written on their faces. And when they see me, they just light up. So that inspires me.

QUIST-ARCTON: In 2008, Tsvangirai pulled out of the presidential runoff vote after Mugabe unleashed his security forces in a brutal crackdown against the opposition. Mugabe won, prompting global indignation. They settled on a power sharing deal with Tsvangirai, a reluctant prime minister in a coalition cabinet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TSVANGIRAI: I, Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, do swear that I will well and truly serve Zimbabwe in the office of prime minister.

QUIST-ARCTON: After taking the oath of office, Tsvangirai warned that the political marriage with Mugabe was not an ideal settlement and would not be easy. This came from a Tsvangirai who had been repeatedly jailed and beaten up under Mugabe. But in person, he remained gracious, bullish and determined to keep fighting. He appealed for compromise and respect for human rights, taking this swipe at Mugabe at a rally after being sworn in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TSVANGIRAI: Let's not have pseudo-democracy. On one hand, you pretend that you shall guarantee people's freedom. On the other, you are the very violator of those people's freedom. This must end.

QUIST-ARCTON: Mugabe had always taunted Tsvangirai, accusing him of being bankrolled and backed by Zimbabwe's wealthy, white minority. But Mugabe appeared to extend an olive branch to his erstwhile political enemy. Despite global goodwill towards Tsvangirai as prime minister, Zimbabwe's economy hit rock bottom with unparalleled hyper-inflation. Four years later, Tsvangirai returned to the campaign trail to challenge Mugabe again, another hopeful moment. But Tsvangirai lost and cried foul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TSVANGIRAI: It is a sham election that does not reflect the will of the people.

QUIST-ARCTON: In November 2017, Tsvangirai's rival, Mugabe, was finally driven out of power in a military takeover backed by the people. A frail and ailing Tsvangirai was by then suffering from colon cancer. He welcomed freedom from repression, political violence and economic mismanagement but said Mugabe should be allowed to live out his remaining years in peace, a magnanimous gesture from Tsvangirai who had himself been imprisoned in his long fight against Mugabe's repressive, long rule. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.