Analysis: War over words is latest salvo from Mugabe's backers

THE arrest of another MDC minister in Zimbabwe sends a fresh warning to anyone who thinks the ailing president, Robert Mugabe, is ready to play by the rules.

Jameson Timba was freed on Sunday after a detention calculated to cause maximum discomfort. Over the course of two days he was moved between three dirty, lice-ridden police stations, one 15 miles from where he was arrested.

Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena claimed there was "nothing mysterious" about the way Mr Timba - accused of calling the president a liar - was dragged around. Police wanted to avoid activists "mobbing" their stations, Mr Bvudzijena said. But Timba's Movement for Democratic Change party believes police were acting on orders to frustrate efforts to feed, clothe and free an official who is particularly close to the prime minister and MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Sporting a coat donned after his release, the minister confirmed he had been denied food and water for more than 48 hours.

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Mr Timba appears to have been arrested on the orders of former information minister Jonathan Moyo. He told the official Herald newspaper on 20 June that the MDC minister of state should be "disciplined" for undermining Mr Mugabe's authority by contradicting his version of what transpired at regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) talks on Zimbabwe this month. Mr Moyo also called for Mr Tsvangirai's arrest.

"(Moyo] is behaving like the leader of Zanu-PF," Mr Tsvangirai said on Sunday, accusing Moyo of trying to push him into pulling out of the 28-month-old coalition - a move that would precipitate an election. Mr Tsvangirai said he would rather "rot in jail".

At the heart of Mr Timba's arrest is a quarrel over semantics - one in which Mr Moyo is highly invested. Expelled from Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party in 2005 over a plot to sideline the president's choice of deputy, Mr Moyo was re-admitted to the Soviet-style politburo in 2010 after three years as an independent MP.

He quickly re-ingratiated himself with the octogenarian leader. Ahead of the summit, Mr Moyo led a team of propagandists to South Africa. Their mission was to persuade SADC's point man on Zimbabwe, South African president Jacob Zuma, to disown a statement that came out of a summit in March in the Zambian resort of Livingstone. Unusually, southern African leaders had banded together to slam Zimbabwe's "violence, intimidation, hate speech (and] harassment" - criticism clearly directed at Zanu-PF.

When at the close of this month's summit, SADC leaders "noted" the Livingstone report, Mr Moyo and his team sped into overdrive. To note wasn't the same as to endorse, they said. In fact, said the Herald, SADC leaders "rejected" what was said at Livingstone.Not so, argued the MDC, backed by Mr Zuma's international relations adviser Lindiwe Zulu, who said: "Whether you use 'noted' or 'endorsed' it means the same."

Mr Timba repeated this claim in an interview with South Africa's Sunday Times. An editor's enthusiastic headline "Mugabe a liar" gave Mr Moyo the excuse he was looking for. Criticising the president is a jailable offence in Zimbabwe.

The Mugabe regime is smarting. SADC monitors are soon to be deployed as observers to JOMIC, the coalition's monitoring body. Hardliners are readying for a fight: registrar-general Tobaiwa Mudede made the astonishing claim that Zimbabwe's voters' roll is "100 per cent perfect" and does not need the overhaul the MDC wants.

That is despite the fact that in a country where life expectancy hovers around 37, more than 41,000 voters aged over 100 are on the electoral roll. Mr Mugabe is believed to have used ghost-voters to stuff ballot boxes in 2008. "It is their right to vote," Mr Mudede insisted.

Last week, presidential ally Didymus Mutasa urged a return to a one-party state, headed of course by Mr Mugabe.

MDC policy adviser Eddie Cross said: "They're trying to implement a strategy that flies in the face of recent SADC developments."

Analysts say Zanu-PF plans to "annihilate" the MDC by dragging officials through lengthy court cases. There are even whispers of a plot to assassinate party leaders.

Mr Timba has emerged from his ordeal in fighting form. "My resolve to fight for democratic change has been strengthened," he wrote on Facebook.