Zimbabwe on the threshold; African autocrat's rule tottering after decades of corruption, excess


HARARE, Zimbabwe -- President Robert Mugabe, one of the last great African autocrats, is leading his country into its 20th year of independence with its economy imploding and his control under growing threat.

"It started off very well, but ended up very badly," said Morgan Tsvangirai, once a Mugabe loyalist but now a major challenger to the so-called father of Zimbabwe's freedom from British colonialism in 1980.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, an umbrella group of trade unions, social, church and civic organizations, is the first national opposition party to confront Mugabe in the former Rhodesia.

In a country where one urban worker can support 10 rural dependents, the group's influence stretches across this undulating high plateau, from the Limpopo to the Zambezi rivers.

A textile worker, miner and union organizer, Tsvangirai, 47, invites comparison to Solidarity's Lech Walesa in Poland -- a relative unknown springing from the workplace to prominence by facing down an entrenched regime. But there is an even closer precedent next door in Zambia, where organized labor led the 1991 campaign that ended Kenneth Kaunda's 27 years in power.

"It's the beginning of the end for Mugabe," said John Makumbe, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe. "Anything that can go wrong is going wrong in Zimbabwe. There are lots of people saying, 'Enough is enough.' The man must go."

Mugabe's ouster would send reverberations around southern Africa as it tries to adapt to South Africa's new post-apartheid assertiveness and forge regional political and economic solidarity in the face of continuing wars in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Near-dictatorial power

But Mugabe retains near-dictatorial power over both the machinery of state and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). To dislodge him would take little short of political revolution.

"The Presidential Powers Act allows Mugabe to do what he likes, when he likes and without any restraint," said Mike Auret, director of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe.

One of the most blatant examples of this has been Mugabe's decision to commit 10,000 troops to fight an unpopular and costly war for Laurent Kabila in Congo without seeking parliamentary or voter approval.

Mugabe exercises control through a network of political patronage. He is above civil and criminal law, and can be impeached only by a vote of 100 of the 150 members of Parliament, of which all but three belong to his party.

The result is a country in crisis, with an annual inflation rate approaching 70 percent, unemployment above 50 percent and more than half the population in abject poverty. Its government is riddled with corruption and ineptitude.

And, casting a shadow over all is HIV-AIDS, a medical, social, economic and environmental disaster that causes 2,000 deaths a month.

"The problem with our government is they know these things but they simply can't handle them, so they don't handle them -- and that's the end of it," said Auret. "The government has run out of ideas."

The Mukashi family experience reflects the grim realities of Zimbabwe. Janet Mukashi, 27, has to come up with ideas daily to feed her husband, Michael, 29, and their sons Joseph, 8, and Joel, 3, in their modest home in Harare.

She says the daily diet that used to cost 20 Zimbabwean dollars now costs about 100. That's the equivalent of about $3, but it is a sum the family cannot afford on the few dollars her husband earns at the odd jobs that he has taken since being laid off as an auto electrician.

The eggs they used to have have disappeared from breakfast since the price quadrupled. These days, it's just porridge. The chicken she used to serve on weekends is now a rare treat.

Official Zimbabwe

If the lives and times of ordinary Zimbabweans are bleak, this did not stop Cabinet members from recently voting themselves a nearly 200 percent wage increase. The raise was reversed Sept. 21 in the face of popular outrage. What hasn't been reversed is the tripling of senior army officers' salaries and the doubling of all military pay, moves widely interpreted as an effort to keep the army loyal in case of an anti-Mugabe uprising.

"If Mugabe had stepped down in 1995, he would have stepped down with his reputation intact," said Tsvangirai. "But now his reputation has been severely damaged because of the mistakes, the crisis the country is facing."

As a labor leader, Tsvangirai became a voice for rising popular discontent. He first demonstrated his independent power by bringing the country to a standstill in December 1997. Shortly afterward, he was attacked and beaten in his union office. He identified his three assailants as government thugs, but they were acquitted.

"We are dealing with a party and a government which is inherently violent," he said. "There is no security. Risks are omnipresent."

The new party will contest parliamentary elections early next year. Then it will select a candidate -- almost certainly Tsvangirai -- to challenge Mugabe in the presidential elections of 2002, if he is still in power.

"Our objective is not to have a stronger opposition," Tsvangirai said. "We want to provide an alternative that can be voted into power if people so wish."

The government view

Official reaction to the opposition has been strident enough to suggest concern, if not alarm. MDC leaders have been disparaged as puppets of foreign governments. Tsvangirai's absence from combat in the anti-colonial struggle has been highlighted in the government-owned media.

"If he was a nationalist and was for the interests of the African, what was he doing?" asked Chen Chimutengwende, a former journalist who is now Mugabe's minister of information.

"We don't take him as a threat," Chimutengwende said. "He has not proved he can solve the great political and economic problems we have in this country. Foreign donors have told him he looks like a leader of this country, so he tries to lead."

Crucial to the party's chances of success is constitutional reform. Tsvangirai and other opposition leaders are demanding limits on Mugabe's control of the election process, an independent electoral supervisory body, and an accurate and transparent voters' roll.

They also want an end to Mugabe's power to appoint 30 unelected members of Parliament and a limit of two five-year presidential terms in place of the endless six-year terms Mugabe can seek under the present system.

A constitutional review commission has been holding hearings and is to produce its report by the end of November. But Mugabe appointed the 400-member commission, and he has the power to accept, amend, reject or ignore its proposals.

Just as he seems in real trouble, he has been thrown a lifeline -- $34 million as the first installment of a $193 million standby loan from the International Monetary Fund.

The Clinton administration backed the payment, reasoning that it was cheaper to prop up the ailing Zimbabwean economy than pick up the pieces after its collapse. For the moment, Mugabe has money to tide him over.

"Mugabe will run again in 2002, and using the party machinery and the machinery of the state will probably win," said the diplomat who has monitored Zimbabwean politics in recent years. "Mugabe is not the sort of leader who is going to lose something he has worked all his life to attain. As long as he is able to draw breath, he will be president of this country."

That view does not faze Tsvangirai. He sees Mugabe as vulnerable.

It is a regime of geriatrics, said Tsvangirai. "They have nothing to offer for the future. They always highlight the past and don't provide a vision for the future."

In its manifesto, Tsvangirai's MDC offers a strengthened Parliament, transparent government with official accountability, reinforced rule of law and economic regeneration.

That is a prospect that appeals to Mishack Shoko, 40, a primary school teacher, who fought in the 1970s for the country's independence alongside Mugabe.

He has paid his 10 Zimbabwean dollars (about 30 cents) to be a member of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change.

"Today I am poorer than I was in 1980" when Zimbabwe became independent, he said. He now earns 11,700 Zimbabwean dollars a month, but reckons the purchasing power is less than the 100 local dollars he earned almost 20 years ago.

Shoko, a local fieldworker in the township of Chitungwiza for Tsvangirai's MDC, said the 71 party membership cards he was asked to sell were quickly snapped up despite widespread fear that having one could bring reprisals from government agents.

"Ordinary people come and ask if they buy a card aren't they going to be in trouble," he said. "I say, 'No, ZANU-PF is finished.' "

Pub Date: 9/29/99

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