Military panicks over economic implosion

THE military — the pillar of President Robert Mugabe’s rule — is reportedly panicking over the country’s dipping economy, which it fears is now the biggest threat to the ruling party’s continued grip on power as Zimbabwe sinks deeper into recession amid company closures and retrenchments.

Faith Zaba

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In separate private briefings this week, army chiefs told Zimbabwe Independent that the power cuts, which have seen most suburbs in Zimbabwe going for more than 18 hours without electricity, have exacerbated an already dire situation.

Contrary to President Robert Mugabe’s assertion that the Morgan Tsvangirai-led MDC-T is the greatest threat to the country’s stability, accusing it of being a Western-sponsored front bent on effecting illegal regime change or worries about former vice-president Mujuru’s mobilisation against government, security chiefs say it is the economy which is Zanu PF’s main threat.

This comes as MDC-T warned this week of more mass demonstrations until the government restores democracy and respects human rights in the country after last week’s protests in Manicaland during which the police brutally beat up its party supporters.

Over the past few months, Zimbabwe has been rocked by series of disturbances precipitated by the country’s worsening economic crisis, starting with a prison riot at Chikurubi Maximum Prison where inmates violently protested against inhuman prison conditions including poor diet and overcrowding.

University of Zimbabwe lecturers, students and general staff went on strike resulting in a temporary closure of the institution in March.

Harare was this week hit by demonstrations as the opposition and civil society demanded the immediate release of abducted journalist-cum politician Itai Dzamara who was taken near his home seven months ago by five unidentified men suspected to be state security agents.

Vendors have had running battles with the police in the past few months since June, protesting their removal from city centres, while residents in Bulawayo have demonstrated against pre-paid water meters.

The army chiefs scoffed at media reports that they were panicking over Zanu PF vicious succession battles, saying their worry instead was the economy, rising unemployment and worsening power shortages, which they view as a threat to the country’s national security.

With chaotic scenes of the Arab Spring that led to the fall of dictators in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in 2011 still engraved deeply into their minds, military boses fear having a Tunisia—style uprising in Zimbabwe triggered by the self-immolation of 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi — a degreed in computer science. Faced with a daunting combination of poor employment prospects and food inflation in a country whose government was authoritarian, inept and corrupt, Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation sparked a wave of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

A top army commander said this week Zimbabwe is facing the same problems as did Tunisia at that time — high unemployment estimated at about 90%, corruption and rising poverty.

In December 2010, Bouazizi, who used to sell fruits and vegetables from a cart in his rural town of Sidi Bouzid, stood in front of municipal offices drenched in gasoline and set himself on fire.

His symbolic act of desperation — self-immolation — resonated immediately with others in the town. Protests began that day in Sidi Bouzid, captured by cellphone cameras and shared on the internet. Within days, protests engulfed the country with Tunisians demanding President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime step down. A month later, Ben Ali fled.

The momentum in Tunisia set off uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East that became known as the Arab Spring. Among other countries, protests rocked Egypt leading to the stepping down of strongman Hosni Mubarak, interestingly Mugabe’s associate.

Another military officer said Zimbabwe finds itself in a similar position where the economic decline has become Zanu PF’s greatest threat more than a once robust opposition now crippled by multiple breakaways.

“We laugh when we read in the media that we are panicking over Mujuru or Zanu PF’s internal fights; instead we are angered by Zanu PF’s never-ending succession battles which pre-occupy our leaders,” he said.

“Instead of concentrating on rescuing the economy and fulfilling its election promises, Zanu PF is channelling all its energies on succession battles forgetting that 2018 is just round the corner and without fixing the economy there might not be a Zanu PF to talk about after 2018.”

The ruling party has dismally failed to meet its electoral promises, including the pledge to create two million jobs.

Contrary to its election manifesto, which promised 2,2 million jobs in the next five years, Zimbabwe has witnessed massive company closures and retrenchments within the last two years, thus swelling the ranks of the unemployed estimated above 90%.

Another senior army commander said Zimbabwe is a time-bomb waiting to explode due to rising poverty, unemployment and worsening electricity supply.

“We surely don’t learn. Zanu PF does not learn. What they don’t realise is that if they don’t fix the economy, a time may come when people will say enough is enough Kusiri kufa ndekupi (we are already dying from inside). People are suffering and they are tired of the fights. They just want jobs, food on the table and to provide for their families.

“As the military, that is what is worrying us from a state security point of view.

We have witnessed what instability and civil war can do to a country – the damage and destruction. None of us want to see that happening in Zimbabwe. That is why we are saying the economy is the country’s greatest threat and power outages are making the situation worse because they will lead to a reduced capacity utilisation in industry, which means less production and more job losses,” one commander said.

“That is what we are panicking about, not the opposition, so-called impeding coalition or Mai Mujuru’s entrance into opposition politics. Remember 2018 is more than two years away from now, so people are watching them fight each other – both in Zanu PF and the MDCs. How about the economy?”

Zimbabweans are equating this period to the economic meltdown amid hyper -infation before 2009, regarded as the worst crisis in Zimbabwe’s recent history.

Energy minister Samuel Undenge announced last week Zimbabwe’s perennial energy crisis is set to worsen by year end after it emerged the country’s sole hydroelectric power plant, Kariba Hydropower Station, will further reduce its generating capacity by more than half to 280 megawatts (MW).

Undenge said power output from Kariba, which dropped from 750 MW in August to current levels of 475MW, will drop further by December, plunging the country into unsustainably long periods of darkness.

Cabinet has agreed to set up a diesel power plant in Mutare by February 2016 to avert a worsening energy crisis that will have devastating repercussions on industry operating on a capacity utilisation of 33,6%, but this will also mean already suffering ordinary Zimbabweans will have to fork out more as this is a costly power generation process.

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