Friday, 4 May 2007

Crisis in Zimbabwe: Is there a solution?

IMF Deputy Director Siddharth Tiwari described the state of the economy in Zimbabwe as "tragic" and "grim".

"It has faced three, four, five, six years of continuous output decline, a rise [in] prices at these rates over several years, increase in poverty, a decrease in public services, increasing HIV/AIDS rates. It is a tragic situation, frankly, and prospects are grim; they are not bright," he said.

The prospects are so grim that nearly a third of the country's 12 million people have fled, some to escape the poverty and others to escape the way in which the President Robert Mugabe regime deals with dissent. Since coming to power in 1980, the regime has routinely destroyed or appropriated political opponents' homes and possessions and "re-distributed" them to ZANU PF officials and supporters. Dissidents risk losing lives, homes and livelihoods.

Operation Murambatsvina, the Government's controversial urban slum clearance programme, created over half a million internally displaced persons and destroyed the livelihoods of close to 10% of the population. Eighty per cent of the country's population is unemployed. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that the rate of inflation, which currently stands at over 1,700%, could reach an unprecedented 4,000% this year. The average life expectancy in the country has dropped to 37, possibly the lowest in the world.

The infrastructure is crumbling. Basic food commodities, transport, foreign currency, fuel and power are in short supply. Water treatment plants break down frequently and outbreaks of cholera in urban areas are claiming many lives every year. Nearly a quarter of the population is dependent on food aid in order to survive.

These concerns have led to waves of industrial action, political demonstrations and protest marches. If it is not college and university students, it is women's rights groups, the constitutional reform movement, trade unions, or one or both factions of the main opposition political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) who are taking to the streets.

Each wave of protests is dealt with ruthlessly. It starts with public threats of violence by senior government officials and the deployment of the country's secret police, the Central Intelligence Organisation, to harass organisers, civic leaders and political opponents in an attempt to instil fear, to prevent the planning of protests and to stop planned protests from going ahead.

On numerous occasions activists like Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) Secretary General, Raymond Majongwe, have been harassed and severely assaulted by the police for organising peaceful protests. Others -- like civil rights activist and Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) national co-ordinator Jenni Williams -- have been told by the country's security agents that they will pay with their lives if they continue organising and taking part in demonstrations and protests. Others activists, like University of Zimbabwe student leader Christopher Giwa, have died in accidents involving military personnel, prompting speculation that their deaths were nothing short of political assassinations. No public enquiries into their deaths were ever held.

The free hand and impunity with which security agents harass, detain and torture ordinary citizens, trade unionists, civil rights activists and members of opposition political parties is not the only problem. The Government has introduced a battery of repressive legislation such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) 2002 and the Interception of Communications Bill 2006, which is expected to be passed shortly, in an attempt to curtail citizens' rights to organise, express their grievances or protest against the way they are being governed.

Critics of the regime have to contend with being placed under constant surveillance by the country's security agencies. They also risk being placed under a travel ban: in 2005, the country introduced laws allowing government agencies to withdraw passports from people who threaten the country's national interests and security. People on the government list whose passports are to be withdrawn include opposition political party officials Paul Themba Nyathi and Grace Kwinjeh; human rights lawyers Beatrice Mtetwa and Gabriel Shumba; and journalists Geoff Nyarota, Nqobile Nyathi, Lloyd Mudiwa, Basildon Peta and Caroline Gombakomba.

However, in spite of bans on demonstration and political rallies and in spite of the repressive laws and the heavy-handedness with which security agents in Zimbabwe deal with dissent, industrial action and protest marches are going to continue until a solution is found to the crisis.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom recently asked: "If it is right to invade Iraq to get rid of the tyrant Saddam Hussein, who was making life hell for the citizens of Iraq, why is it not right to invade Zimbabwe to get rid of the tyrant Mugabe?"

Such a move would be unfortunate. It would only serve to make the situation worse for the ordinary man, woman and child in Zimbabwe and would further undermine the democratic process in the country. It would give credence to Robert Mugabe who accuses the MDC leadership of being puppets of the West and who has repeatedly said that the crisis in Zimbabwe is because of efforts by Britain and the US to overthrow his government. As has happened with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, invading Zimbabwe to get rid of Robert Mugabe would turn him into a martyr and would lead to the unnecessary deaths of innocent and unarmed civilians.

The solution to the crisis rests with the people of Zimbabwe.

For a number of years now, independent newspaper publisher, Trevor Ncube has been calling for a "third way" -- sentiments that have been echoed recently by the International Crisis Group in its March 2007 report, "Zimbabwe: An End to the Stalemate?".

In an interview with Chipo Chinembiri (Institute for War and Peace Reporting, December 13, 2005), Trevor Ncube said: "We should find the middle ground -- that is, we should find the good people in Zanu PF and good people in the MDC. We should find good people from across the board to speed up our nation's aspirations. Let's start afresh."

It remains to be seen whether this third way will be found any time soon.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Labour Left Briefing's April issue.

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