It’s the week leading up to the Zimbabwe elections and our ‘war machine’has just kicked in. We felt we needed a battle plan because everyone’s in a big fight.
The West is at war with President Mugabe; the Zanu-PF government appears at war with its people and Morgan Tsvangirai is launching air-to-surface verbal missiles in a desperate bid to unseat Mr Mugabe.
So we too have commissioned our Zimbabwe Elections Desk, which is commanded by a cool-headed general, Nick Ericsson, a South African journalist who also edits our quarterly magazine, BBC Focus on Africa.
Normally, the BBC infantry team from all services – radio, TV and online – would be present on the ground to lead the journalistic assault on a story of this scale at close quarters. But Zimbabwe is a different beast.
Although we at African News and Current Affairs have been lucky to use the services of local Zimbabwean journalists, the BBC hasn’t exactly been offered an invitation to Harare – leaving little option but to launch ‘drone’newsgathering missions from the borders of neighbouring countries.
But with just days to go the first big casualty of the war is announced – Tsvangirai has pulled out. This throws quite a few people into a panic. For us the immediate question is how to balance the reporting of a war with only one fighter. But we decide the fight has to go on, covering the Zanu-PF campaign and reflecting the views of the handicapped opposition.
As the week progresses our Zimbabwe Desk is almost drowned in calls and requests for interviews and material from the rest of the BBC. General Ericsson increasingly resembles a commander giving daily briefings from his base.
He has ring-fenced daily blocks of time to speak to BBC radio outlets such as Radio Wales and Five Live, providing sound clips, stories and scripts from material we are able to gather from our team of local reporters and from interviews we conduct with government and opposition figures as well as ordinary Zimbabweans.
By mid-week it’s time for me to join the battle, chairing briefing seminars organised by the BBC College of Journalism for producers at White City and Bush House with help from our resident Zimbabwean journalist Lewis Machipisa and other Zimbabwean experts in London.
Africa is divided in its approach to Zimbabwe, I preach, reminding the keen listeners that a number of the African leaders whom the West is looking upon to prod Bob into collecting a free Oyster travel card have no democratic balls to do so – some have not held elections for 14 years, while others have suppressed the opposition in their own countries effectively turning them into de facto one party regimes.
Soon Lewis has to shed his trademark colourful African shirts and dreadlocks to don a suit complemented by neat hair and face the BBC TV camerasâ€¦the joys and pains of telling a world story from a distance.
By the eve of election we get one of our big scoops – an interview with the MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti minutes after he’s released from prison.
Election Day is the culmination of the battle of Harare and we throw everything we’ve got at it. From capturing President Mugabe in a relaxed mood as he casts a vote for himself to personal stories from Zimbabweans with harrowing tales and amazing stories of survival, to hearing from missionaries in the country complaining over how overzealous Zanu-PF activists have invaded some churches and replaced pictures of Jesus Christ with Mugabe’s portraits.
Two days later the war is all over. President Mugabe is re-elected and sworn in, editorial ceasefire is declared and our war machine is unscrambled – till next time.