25 March 2008

Zimbabwe: Mugabe Faces Toughest Challenge Ever

Harare — As Zimbabweans go to polls on March 29, odds - which political analysts say are of his own creation - are likely to be against the country's leader Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe, who has been at the helm of Zimbabwe's leadership since the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1980, seeks a sixth year term that ends in 2013.

But things might not be easy for the incumbent. Mugabe is contesting on his erstwhile ruling Zanu PF party against his former Finance minister Mr Simba Makoni and trade unionist Mr Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Analysts say it is Mugabe's own creation and policies that will work against him.Dr Lovemore Madhuku said while he predicted a "victory" for Mugabe, he said the way Mugabe had "run down" the economy is haunting him. "This poll presents the toughest challenge for Mugabe even if he is likely to manipulate the system and win," said Madhuku, who is an ardent critic of Mugabe.

"Makoni is his creation and poses a real challenge to him, so does Tsvangirai. That is the same for the crumbling economy. Had it not been for that Mugabe would not be haunted at all. He has reduced everyone to a beggar in Zimbabwe."

Zimbabwe is going through its worst economic experience since independence, with a recession for more than a decade now. International financial institutions, such as the World Bank, say Zimbabwe has the fastest shrinking economy of a country outside a war zone, and the highest inflation rate in the world - currently officially at more than 100,000 per cent.

The country is facing acute shortage of all essentials - from drugs, electricity, fuel, foreign currency; cash to basic goods such said maize meal, milk, soap and cooking oil.

On the parallel market that is thriving, Zimbabwe-dollar is trading at more than $52 million (after removal of three zeroes) against the green back.

For one to go to a nightclub or a drink, he needs about a billion dollars, thanks to the Central Bank there are now $10 million notes, otherwise one would need a bag to ferry the money.

Unemployment rate stands at more than 80 per cent. Crossing borders to neighbouring South Africa and Mozambique has now become a booming business for many. Over reliance on fast shrinking agricultural and manufacturing sectors has resulted to acute shortage of commodities.

"As long as Mugabe is there I will continue to go to South Africa to buy groceries for my family and for-sale," says 34 year-old Janet Mutimutema. "I just pray that this election brings this to an end because it (crossing borders) is risky and tiresome."

A former accounts clerk with a London Stock Exchange listed financial giant, Mutimutema, like many Zimbabweans, was retrenched. This was after her company failed to absorb the stress the economy imposed on it. She sells basic commodities such as cooking oil, shoes, soap, powdered milk and eggs that she imports from South Africa.

Other people are now going to China, Malaysia and Dubai to import electrical goods, clothes and shoes for re-sale in Zimbabwe. But even then the export-import trade is not easy as the police often carry out a crackdown and confiscate foreign currency.

"The business is brisk especially when you get your orders before leaving. The only problem comes when the police makes a crackdown and confiscate the foreign currency," said Kudakwashe Njanji, who frequents the Harare-Abu Dhabi route in search of wealth.

A former school teacher, Njanji says: "I think all that is coming to an end come March 29. I am tired of this kind of life. I went to school expecting to have a decent life, but one man has made it his policy to make my life miserable."

A drive through the streets of Harare shows posters with Mugabe having been defaced despite the watchful eye of the security agency.

One man is serving a custodial sentence for defacing Mugabe's posters in Epworth, about 20km east of Harare.

"There is a lot of anger in the air, only a miracle can save Mugabe this time," says Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, a parliamentary candidate for the MDC faction that is backing Makoni. She has been an MP for Glen Norah, one of Harare's poorest suburbs. "I can feel that his days are numbered and he is living on borrowed patience. Mugabe has caused a lot of suffering to this country, economically and otherwise."

Mugabe accuses the Western powers, especially United States and Britain, for the economic woes his country is facing. He argues that the economic sanctions and travel bans imposed on him and his cronies by US and the European Union have now taken effect on ordinary Zimbabweans.

To Mugabe, the election is not about the current economic situation although he admits that it can be better. Mugabe says his rivals are sponsored by Western powers and he predicts victory.

Addressing Zanu PF supporters in a rural place, Mugabe charged that Makoni is a dreamer and a man of no principles. He said electing Makoni or Tsvangirai would mean reversing the gains of the liberation struggle. He said they do not have credentials to run the country.

"Ruling the country is not just for everyone who falls from nowhere like a wild fruit and then says he wants to be president. That is exactly what Makoni did. He has never learnt that. If you vote for him you are lost. You don't join a man of no principle. Someone who just wakes up from his dreams and decides to be a ruler," said Mugabe.

Makoni, a former senior Zanu PF member, the first person from the ruling party to pose real challenge to Mugabe, accuses his past boss of getting corrupted with power and reneging from the pledge he made in 1980.

"In his pledge at independence to the nation and the world, Mugabe promised growth with equity, unity and national reconciliation for a one united nation. That was a bold and welcome vision. But he has diverted from that hence we are in this sad situation," said Makoni.

"We had laid a strong foundation for the nation's prosperity. But along the way we got corrupted with power Leadership lost track and hence we are now suffering under dictatorship."

Rarely does Mugabe admit to ruining the economy or being an autocrat. But he was forced to admit it while in Magunje, about 250km north west of Harare, when electricity went off while he was addressing a rally. The gathering had to wait for about an hour for a generator.

Some argue that Mugabe has not only ruined the country but he also has bad human rights records that dates back to the 1980s when his army massacred more than 20,000 people of Ndebele origin.

In 2000, Mugabe embarked on a violent land reform programme that resulted in deaths. That year's election was not peaceful and some lives were lost too. Since then many Zimbabweans have fled the country. Estimates say more than five million Zimbabweans are in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and neighbouring countries such as South Africa and Botswana.

They fear to be part of the over half of the country's population facing starvation.

Prof Eldred Masunungure, a senior political scientist at University of Zimbabwe, says Mugabe has no confidence to convince his supporters that he has a solution to the country's problems.

"The list of what is haunting him is very long. In fact asking what is not haunting him would be the best, if at all there is such," said Masunungure. "Everything seems to be collapsing around him. He is finding it difficult to convince the electorate because economic indicators, which people value, are negative. There are no goods even in the informal sector, including things such as maize."

At the Mahusekwa rally, the Zanu PF supporters that Mugabe was addressing rushed for sadza (ugali) that the party had prepared to lure them to the gathering.

Masunungure said Mugabe should have postponed the election and address the economy. "It is extremely unusual for a leader to call for an election while the economy is tottering. I do not see anything positive pointing to his side," said Masunungure. He adds: May be that is why he panicked and brought in a law that government take majority control of all foreign companies."

"But people are weary of such a sentimental rather than a rational law. There is nothing wrong with empowerment but it must not be haphazard as that is destructive. That is exactly what happened during the land seizures. Look what is happening now: everyone is starving."

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