HARARE, Zimbabwe - President Robert Mugabe summoned his top security officials to a government training center near his home in central Zimbabwe on March 30. In a voice barely audible at first, he informed the leaders of the state security apparatus that had enforced his rule for 28 years that he had lost the presidential vote held the previous day.
Then Mugabe told the gathering he planned to give up power in a televised speech to the nation the next day, according to the written notes of one participant that were corroborated by two other people with direct knowledge of the meeting.
But Zimbabwe's military chief, General Constantine Chiwenga, responded that the choice was not Mugabe's alone to make.
According to two firsthand accounts of the meeting, Chiwenga told Mugabe his military would take control of the country to keep him in office or the president could contest a runoff election, directed in the field by senior army officers supervising a military-style campaign against the opposition.
Mugabe, the only leader this country has known since its break from white rule nearly three decades ago, agreed to remain in the race and rely on the army to ensure his victory. During an April 8 military planning meeting, according to written notes and the accounts of participants, the plan was given a code name: CIBD. The acronym, which proved apt in the fevered campaign that unfolded over the following weeks, stood for: Coercion. Intimidation. Beating. Displacement.
In the three months between the March 29 vote and the June 27 runoff election, ruling-party militias under the guidance of 200 senior army officers battered the Movement for Democratic Change, bringing the opposition party's network of activists to the verge of oblivion.
By election day, more than 80 opposition supporters were dead, hundreds were missing, thousands were injured, and hundreds of thousands were homeless. Morgan Tsvangirai, the party's leader, dropped out of the contest and took refuge in the Dutch Embassy.
From that first meeting, Mugabe's top advisers appeared to hold decisive influence over the president.
Many of the people interviewed, including members of Mugabe's inner circle, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution. Much of the reporting for this article was conducted by a Zimbabwean reporter for The Post whose name is being withheld for security reasons.
Mugabe and his advisers also showed little concern in these meetings for the most basic rules of democracy that have taken hold in some other African nations born from anticolonial independence movements.
Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, took power in 1980 after a protracted guerrilla war. Its military supporters, who stood to lose wealth and influence if Mugabe bowed out, were not prepared to relinquish their authority simply because voters checked Tsvangirai's name on the ballots.
The plan's first phase unfolded the week after the high-level meeting, as Mugabe supporters began erecting 2,000 party compounds across the country that would serve as bases for the party militias.
At first, beatings with whips, strikes with sticks, torture, and other forms of intimidation appeared consistent with the country's past political violence. Little of it was fatal.
That changed May 5 in the remote farming village of Chaona, 65 miles north of the capital, Harare. The village of dirt streets had voted for Tsvangirai in the election's first round after decades of supporting Mugabe.
On the evening of May 5 - three days after Mugabe's government finally released the official results of the March 29 election - 200 Mugabe supporters rampaged through its streets. By the time the militia finished, seven people were dead and the injured bore the hallmarks of a new kind of political violence.
Some in the crowds believed soldiers trained in torture were behind the killings.