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Zimbabweans Losing Patience with Mugabe

More and more people, including Presidential Guardsmen, are starting to say “enough is enough”.
By George Tsuro
In the aftermath of a mutiny by soldiers in President Robert Mugabe's elite Presidential Guard, Zimbabweans are asking: are the chickens finally coming home to roost for the head of state after seven years of misrule that have resulted in the total collapse of a once buoyant economy?

Mugabe had to delay his return home from leave in the Far East after police confirmed reports that twenty-three young members of the Presidential Guard had sprayed the front of State House, Mugabe's official residence, with gunfire on the night of January 29. They were protesting against their own poor pay and conditions while their senior officer live lavish lifestyles. Among complaints is that their diet in barracks have been reduced to a beans-only meals.

A senior police source told IWPR that the mutineers were arrested and are being held at 1 Commando Battalion Barracks in Hatfield, an upmarket suburb between State House and Harare International Airport. They are certain to be court martialled and if tried for treason could be executed.

He said the Presidential Guard has been replaced by the crack Police Support Unit as a precautionary measure to ensure that Mugabe does not suffer a “Kabila style” assassination.

Laurent Kabila, a close ally of Mugabe, became president of the Congo after the toppling of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Kabila was shot dead at his desk in State House, Kinshasa, the Congo capital, by a member of his presidential guard on January 16, 2001.

Mugabe’s entire Presidential Guard, meanwhile, has been disarmed and their duties frozen in order to nip any widespread revolt in the bud.

“We were worried about that incident [the Kabila assassination] and at the moment we can’t trust anyone," said the police source. "We don’t know whether the soldiers did it on their own accord or whether there was someone else powerful who instigated it."

Mugabe was flying back to Zimbabwe from a holiday in the Far East when the attack on his official residence took place. Warned to delay his arrival home, his plane diverted to Addis Ababa where he was given reports on what was happening and how serious and widespread the mutiny might be.

"It took the president a long time - many, many hours - after he finally arrived in Harare before he went back to State House after the shooting," said the police source. "Ever since then, he has continued to feel that his security is threatened."

The president is understood to have gone at first to his new Chinese-designed, Serbian-built 25-bedroom palace - three times the size of State House - in the northern suburb of Borrowdale.

Mugabe, who was 83 on February 21, knows now that 2007 is going to be his most difficult year in power as more and more people, including Presidential Guardsmen, are starting to say “enough is enough”.

Few Zimbabweans ever thought that they would see the day when soldiers would openly defy the iron-handed president, who has always boasted about the patriotism and unquestioned loyalty of his armed forces. Despite the mounting discontent and the increasing number of powerful enemies, since Zimbabwe began its descent into economic oblivion seven years ago, Mugabe always said he could rely on his armed forces, considered to be among the best in Africa. He could at least sleep easy at night knowing that he was fiercely protected and that what befell Kabila could never happen to him.

In the weeks since the mutiny, Mugabe appears to have grown more nervous. The State House shooting was not an isolated incident. Elsewhere, on the same day, some fifty soldiers in another Presidential Guard Unit at Inkomo Barracks, in Harare outside State House, shot dead thirty horses and fled with an assortment of AK-47 and FN rifles.

Their complaints were also about poor pay and conditions compared with the profligacy of their officers.

The two mutinies heightened Mugabe's growing mistrust of close political lieutenants who are pushing for his resignation at the end of his current term of office in 2008. Mugabe wants to extend his presidency until 2010, by when he will have ruled his country for its entire thirty years of independence.

Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party is highly divided now with two powerful men vying to succeed him - Solomon Mujuru, the formidable former army commander and leader of Mugabe's guerrilla liberation army under the war-name Rex Nhongo, and former intelligence chief, now rural development minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mujuru is pushing his wife, current Vice President Joice Mujuru, towards the presidency with a view to becoming the power behind the throne. "The fight for the succession is now very vicious,” said one top member of the ZANU PF politburo. Mujuru has powerful connections in the army while Mnangagwa has an intricate web of connections in the Central Intelligence Organisation spy agency.

As well as wanting the next presidential election postponed until 2010, Mugabe hopes to remain in power as a largely ceremonial Life President, a post that would protect him against trial on charges of crimes against humanity either in an international or a domestic court.

At the same time, there have been widespread reports of mass desertions and resignations from ordinary army units and police over poor pay and working conditions. There have also been reports of unrest and strikes at the Zimbabwe Military Academy in Gweru, in central Zimbabwe, over poor conditions.

To try to deal with this new threat, unique in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, the government is increasing allowances for the security forces to boost their incomes. Among the offers is an “efficiency” allowance of between 20 per cent and 35 per cent backdated to January.

The lowest-ranked soldier, a private, currently takes home around 140,000 Zimbabwe dollars (46 US dollars at the realistic black market rate, rather than the meaningless official exchange rate) a month, comprising a salary of 84,000 Zimbabwe dollars plus transport and housing allowances. This has to be set against runaway inflation that reached nearly 1,600 per cent in January and which is forecast to rise to 4,000 per cent before the end of the year.

Analysts say the mounting discontent among workers poses a serious threat to the government. Most workers have been reduced to paupers. Doctors, nurses and teachers are on strike and if threats of further protests by civil servants and students erupt into a nationwide campaign, Mugabe will face a major challenge.

A united civil service, traditionally loyal to the government, has never taken to the streets. But because of mounting poverty, even among those Zimbabweans lucky enough to have jobs in an environment where more than 80 per cent of people of working age are unemployed, the country’s 180,000 civil servants seem to have awakened from their slumber. They are bracing for a bruising strike if the government fails to award the least paid a salary above the official poverty line.

The latest monthly income required for a family of five to maintain minimal living standards is 458,000 Zimbabwe dollars (152 US dollars) a month, according to the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, a welfare organisation among whose objectives is the protection of consumers. The lowest paid civil servant gets 30,000 Zimbabwe dollars a month, barely enough for his or her transport fare to and from work, let alone to pay for food, clothes, school fees and accommodation.

The chairperson of the Civil Service Staff Association Apex Council, Tendai Chikowore, said civil servants are "very agitated”.

The Apex Council includes the Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association and the Public Service Association. In meetings with the government, it has issued an ultimatum to respond to their demands by a set date or face a national strike. They want a 400 per cent pay rise, but its value will be wiped out in just over three months at the current rate of inflation.

Zimbabwe, reeling from political and economic instability for seven years since Mugabe began his economically destructive and socially destabilising "land reform" programme in 2000, began the year with strikes by doctors and nurses. With prices escalating daily, it is inevitable that the strikes will expand and escalate as people's tolerance breaks down, reaching some kind of tipping point.

Various opposition groups staged unexpected marches recently in Bulawayo, the country's second city, against Mugabe’s attempt to extend his term of office to 2010.

University of Zimbabwe political science professor Eldred Masungure said the economy has become the “invisible opposition” to Mugabe’s rule. “It’s driving the current spate of strikes in the absence of real political opposition,” he said. “Although there is no coherence in the protests, they could degenerate into political protests.

"The lack of morale in the army and police is the most difficult challenge the state will be facing in coming months ... The hopelessness and anger of ordinary people has created a sense of militancy."

Economic analyst Elizabeth Marunda also warned of spontaneous rioting similar to food riots in the 1990s that were led by the then Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions chief Morgan Tsvangirai, now leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. “Revolutions have come about as a result of discontent and we have a lot of discontent in the country today,” she said.

Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC and a breakaway MDC faction led by Arthur Mutambara have begun holding nationwide rallies calling on people to demonstrate for a new constitution and against postponement of elections to 2010, worsening hardships, poor salaries and the world’s highest inflation rate.

Mutambara told journalists that he and fellow MDC-Mutambara leaders are prepared to die for freedom, although such lofty pledges made in the past by opponents of Mugabe have come to nothing.

George Tsuro is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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