Traditional leaders and civil society in Zimbabwe have united in a call for calm and restraint as fears mount over a possible surge in violence ahead of parliamentary elections in March 2005.
Political violence has been a feature of Zimbabwean elections since independence in 1980. It however reached a new level in the polls of 2000 and 2002, when President Robert Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF faced their first real challenge in the form of Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
In its latest report, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum noted that tension and political violence has continued to rise ahead of next year's parliamentary election.
As the threat of renewed clashes looms between MDC and ZANU-PF supporters, local leaders in the Nkayi district of Matabeleland North province have begun consulting ancestral spirits in the Njelele mountains south of Bulawayo.
In 2000 Nkayi, an MDC stronghold, witnessed some of the worst violence in the run-up to the parliamentary polls. Three MDC officials and an opposition supporter disappeared. The supporter was later found beaten to death, and three bodies were found burned beyond recognition.
Youth affiliated with ZANU-PF and 'war veterans' were allegedly involved in the terror campaign.
Renowned traditionalist Luca Msindo Mpofu, who has spearheaded the call for calm, told IRIN that traditional leaders were now turning to ancestral spirits for assistance.
"A lot of people have died at the height of politically motivated violence in the past few years, and the same is likely to happen next year unless civil society and political leaders join hands and enforce peace and tranquillity. As traditional leaders, we have seen fit to consult the [spirits of] Njelele and plead with our ancestors to ensure there is peace and harmony during and after the elections," Mpofu said.
Njelele is a shrine where traditional leaders from southern Zimbabwe have sought divine intervention during natural disasters, such as drought or famine. It is believed that ancestral forces have resided there since the arrival of the Ndebele people in the country in the early 1800s.
"We believe our ancestors will intervene, and hope the ugly scenes that were witnessed in 2000 will not return to haunt the masses," said Mpofu.
The move has also received the backing of the clergy.
"There is definitely a heightened sense of concern over the upcoming election, especially since previous ones had, in some parts, turned violent. But the church will appeal over the Christmas and New Year period for people to exercise restraint and consideration," Bishop Trevor Manhanga, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, said.
The Anglican Bishop, Sebastian Bakare, who heads the Protestant Zimbabwe Council of Churches, Bishop Patrick Mutume of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference, and Manhanga have been attempting to hold talks with the two main political parties since last year to resolve the political crisis.