Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is threatening the opposition with “fire and death” if it dares call street protests against his government,
but analysts say the veteran leader is showing signs of panicking at a time when his main challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, seems to have ridden through a split in the opposition ranks.
Mugabe, addressing an independence celebration audience this week, took time to warn his opponents against mounting Ukrainian-style street protests to overthrow his government, which critics blame for plunging Zimbabwe into a deep recession since 1999.
In an apparent reference to opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Tsvangirai, who has in the past week held rallies to drum up support for his party’s mass-protest plans, Mugabe said the opposition is “playing with fire” and that the country’s security forces are ready to deal mercilessly with street demonstrations.
“I think there is an indication that the government is quite scared because they know people are suffering,” John Makumbe, political commentator and Mugabe critic, told ZimOnline.
“Mugabe is trying to intimidate people so they cannot go on to the streets, but people are very angry with the state of the country and the government is afraid they might agree with the MDC’s position,” added Makumbe.
Officials in Mugabe’s government say they are worried about any planned protests, which they say will destabilise a country battling its worst economic crisis since independence in 1980. They added that they are working to thwart any attempt “to breach the country’s peace and security”.
A senior government official who declined to be named said on Wednesday: “This is an issue that we continue to review often, but there is no doubt that the feeling here is one of anxiety and as such the government will naturally respond accordingly to any threat to the country’s peace and security.”
Senior army and police officers have said that the country’s security forces have been put on high alert and have since the Easter holidays intensified anti-public-riot drills to keep them in shape to quell any MDC-led protests.
The police have in the past week also used Israeli-sourced anti-riot water-cannon trucks in the drills, according to a senior inspector at the police’s Morris Depot in Harare, where some of the drills have taken place.
Analysts say that despite Mugabe’s sabre rattling, Tsvangirai’s protest calls resonate with the majority, who are battling to eke out a living as Zimbabwe’s economy sinks deeper despite official optimism.
The analysts say the economic crisis, marked by the highest inflation rate in the world at 913,6% and still edging higher, unemployment above 80% and shortages of foreign currency and fuel, is feeding into mass anger against the government and will play into the opposition’s protest plans.
Many Zimbabweans are angry with Mugabe, who at independence was welcomed as a hero but is now reviled as he prevails over a country also grappling breaking sewerage systems, power and water cuts, uncollected garbage and deteriorating roads.
“For many people the pain is now intense; the pain has reached the bone,” Makumbe said.
“Many people will now be persuaded that demonstrations are the only way to get themselves out of this quagmire,” Eldred Masunungure, chairperson of the University of Zimbabwe’s political-science department, added.
Mugabe seems to have dramatically raised the stakes against Tsvangirai by daring him to engage in the mass protests and, analysts say, with strong leadership and proper planning the demonstrations could be successful.
Said Masunungure: “The capacity to mobilise people is there and I think people are beginning to say, ‘We are our own liberators and we have suffered enough.'”
Tsvangirai has refused to back down from the mass-protest threats, vowing to mobilise Zimbabweans to take to the streets to demand Mugabe paves the way for a transitional government that will be tasked with spearheading the writing of a new and democratic Constitution that would lead to free and fair elections under international supervision.
Mugabe will again be looking to his loyal security chiefs to marshal the country’s security forces into crushing any dissent, although analysts say this could fail if a mass swell of public anger spills into the streets.
Zimbabwe’s security forces have also been hit hard by the economic crisis, putting their loyalty to Mugabe into question. Zimbabwe Defence Forces chief Constantine Chiwenga has advised Mugabe to review security forces’ salaries ahead of the MDC protests.
Tsvangirai has yet to name a date for protests, which could start small, and analysts say Mugabe’s strategy could be to stifle any campaign before it takes off in the coming months.
‘Threats will not derail plans’
MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa said on Wednesday that the MDC will go ahead with the protests despite Mugabe’s threats.
“Mugabe’s threats will not derail our plans. He is showing signs of dangerous levels of desperation. Instead of providing solutions to the many problems Zimbabweans are facing, Mugabe chooses to threaten, insult and terrorise the people to cow them into submission.
“Zimbabweans are sick and tired of a leadership that that pre-occupies itself with shadow boxing instead of finding remedies to the current crisis,” said Chamisa.
Lovemore Madhuku, the chairperson of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) civic group that is fighting for a new, democratic Constitution for Zimbabwe, dismissed Mugabe’s threats, saying no one should take them seriously.
“His threats won’t change anything. We will continue with our programmes until he (Mugabe) embraces democratic principles and a people-driven democratic Constitution.
“No one will take note of such comments because this has been the style of his government. The comments are calculated to intimidate the people in order to suppress demand for democratic rule,” said Madhuku.
The NCA chairperson said Mugabe’s threats against the opposition-led protests are a clear sign of paranoia within government circles. The NCA, churches, students and other civic groups have already endorsed plans by the MDC to stage the street demonstrations.
Meanwhile, the MDC on Wednesday announced the resignation of its national chairperson, Gift Chimanikire.
“Following the call by the party on April 14 2006 to all those in leadership positions who have developed cold feet or doubts about the efficacy of our values on non-violence, democracy, equality and respect for the dignity of every Zimbabwean, we hereby announce that Mr Gift Chimanikire … handed in his letter of resignation from the position of national chairperson,” the MDC said in a statement.
Chimanikire had been part of an MDC faction opposed to Tsvangirai’s leadership that led to the MDC leader’s suspension by a disciplinary committee, although the suspension was not enforced by the High Court.
“We wish him well. We continue to call upon any remaining members in similar situations to take this opportunity and resign. On our part, we remain resolute and unequivocally committed to the struggle for democracy and the betterment of all Zimbabweans. We continue to pledge our unwavering commitment to complete the struggle against the Mugabe dictatorship and to deliver a better life to all citizens.” — Mail & Guardian Online/Zimonline