Tendai Biti’s lawyer, Nqobizitha Mlilo has confirmed the arrest of his client, indicating that by Wednesday afternoon Biti was still being held at the border.
Mlilo told Daily Maverick that Biti decided to flee to Zambia after his mother’s house was surrounded by unknown men and his life was threatened.
Biti is accused of having flouted Zimbabwean electoral law by “unofficially and unlawfully” announcing MDC Alliance president Nelson Chamisa as the duly elected president of Zimbabwe.
He is in police custody and will be transported back to Harare.
Biti may also face charges relating to the violence that erupted in the capital a day after the election and in which seven people were killed.
Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) initially arrested 27 protesters who have since been released on bail.
Following those arrests it has turned its gaze towards senior MDC-Alliance officials for inciting violence and unlawfully demonstrating last Wednesday.
The state-run Chronicle newspaper reported on Tuesday that Biti was among nine suspects sought for inciting the MDC protests at which the army opened fire.
Biti is a senior figure in the MDC alliance and was a respected finance minister in Zimbabwe’s troubled 2009-13 power-sharing government.
Biti’s MDC-Alliance colleague and former Cabinet Minister David Coltart recalled with concern that Biti had been “brutally tortured” when he was last arrested by the Zimbabwean authorities at the time of the 2008 elections.
Coltart insisted that Biti had committed no crimes by allegedly announcing the elections results early or by organising demonstrations against the conduct of the elections.
Coltart, a lawyer who is part of the MDC team preparing the party’s legal challenge to the election results, said that neither under the Electoral Act nor the Freedom of Expression clause of the constitution, was it illegal for Biti to have said that Nelson Chamisa and the MDC had won.
“He didn’t say these are the official results. He did what any politician around the world would do, he confidently announced that his candidate and party had won. And where else in the world, except in the most authoritarian states, is it a crime to announce that you have won? This is absolutely pathetic.
“As for the charges that he arranged demonstrations, he has never called for violent demonstrations. Once again he had the constitutional right to organise peaceful demonstrations. We have seen many large demonstrations of the MDC before the elections and all were absolutely peaceful.”
Coltart said it was remarkable that the authorities had now literally hunted down Biti yet had not lifted a finger by either investigating, arresting or prosecuting those soldiers who had shot dead six innocent bystanders last week.
He said all that Biti had done was to say confidently that the MDC had won. “And when I look at the figures, he had good reason to be confident.”
Coltart said that when one looked at the context of the election and previous elections which had been characterised by violence, fraud and misconduct by Zanu-PF or the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, it was not unreasonable to suspect it again.
Derek Matyszak, a Zimbabwe analyst at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, said that the arrest of Biti, if confirmed, could only be described as “politically, extremely stupid”.
At a time when Emmerson Mnangagwa was supposed to be demonstrating to the world that he was putting Zimbabwe on a new political trajectory, “this is going in completely the opposite trajectory. It makes no sense. It will have very negative implications for Mnangagwa’s administration”.
Nevertheless he added that he thought that both the internal demonstrations and the negative international reaction to the violent suppression of the demonstrations and the arrest of Biti would eventually pass “and the political opposition would resign itself to another five-year period of Zanu-PF rule”.
Matyszak, speaking on the ISS View on Africa event, said he believed the election results announced by the ZEC reflected how voters marked their ballots and that the election results were not rigged. But he also believes the electoral environment was marred by intimidation, especially in the rural areas where some 70% of voters live.
Coltart said he did not think the government would now try to arrest MDC leader and presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa as well.
“That would be a bridge too far for the international community. Also he didn’t after the elections commit the heinous offence of calling the election early,” Coltart added, sarcastically, referring to Biti’s declaration, before the ZEC announced the election results, that Chamisa and the MDC-Alliance had won.
Biti’s arrest comes as the MDC confirmed it would launch a legal challenge to Mnangagwa’s narrow election victory, which it says was due to fraud.
“Those results represent a total negation of the will of the people,” MDC lawyer Thabani Mpofu told reporters. “The election results made by ZEC (Zimbabwe Electoral Commission) will be challenged.”
Mpofu declined to give the date when the legal case would be lodged, which is set to delay Mnangagwa’s inauguration.
Under Zimbabwean law, the deadline for filing the challenge is Friday. The Constitutional Court must rule on the petition within 14 days.
“Evidence derives from ZEC’s figures that in our view grossly mathematically fail to tally,” said Mpofu.
“We have what we require for the purposes not just of mounting a credible and sustainable challenge, but that will yield a vacation of the entire process announced by ZEC.
“We are convinced once this has been placed before a court, there will only be one outcome.”
The MDC headquarters were raided by authorities in what Mpofu described as “an attempt to destroy our evidence”, but he said their data was “secure”.
He gave no details about the evidence of alleged fraud, promising to reveal “a secret weapon” in court.
Mnangagwa, a former ally of ousted Robert Mugabe, narrowly retained power in last week’s landmark vote, but the MDC has repeatedly said it actually won.
The president, the ruling Zanu-PF party and the electoral commission have dismissed charges of cheating. DM