GOVERNMENT, struggling to rescue the sinking economy and contain rising social discontent, has been closely monitoring political flashpoints in the aftermath of disputed 2013 general elections, while bolstering its instruments of repression to combat any possible uprising due to deteriorating socio-economic instability.
Senior intelligence officers told the Zimbabwe Independent this week that the looming battle between the security forces and street vendors was already foreseen as government always feared that when the hordes of unemployed locals, including the poor of the poorest, get desperate there were bound to constitute a hotspot among the population.
The officers say through its civilian and security structures, government has been trying to identify political minefields and security threats, while also putting in place foolproof measures to contain any explosive developments, hence the decision to flash out vendors who are now seen more as a security rather than a social or health threat.
The involvement of the Rhodesian relic Joint Operations Command (Joc), which brings together the army, police and intelligence services, on the vendors’ issue shows that the matter is considered a state security threat rather than an ordinary civilian problem.
“Government has since the 2013 general elections been assessing the situation through its civilian and security structures because it always feared there would be problems if the economy does not perform and company closures and job losses got worse,” a senior intelligence officer said.
“The potential threats which were identified after the elections have been clustered under the economy, food security, foreign policy, national security, and media. So for each of these issues a solution had to be found.
“On the economy ZimAsset had to be cobbled together quickly; food security had to be enhanced and it’s also in ZimAsset; foreign policy issues were to be addressed vigorously through re-engagement and internationals travels and visits which include to all-weather friends like China and Russia, as well as African countries and national security matters were to be dealt with by bolstering the armoury through buying new military and police equipment. A media strategy was also necessary and hence the engagement by the Ministry of Information to ensure that problems are managed properly without authorities and journalists digging into new trenches.”
Intelligence sources say JOC has warned government that the social situation was volatile and the teeming vendors in towns and cities, especially Harare’s central business district “constituted a security risk”.
“The intelligence services, under JOC’s aegis, have regularly been conducting a political risk or threat assessment. This allows government to estimate potential problems and areas of vulnerabilities and act accordingly,” one intelligence officer said.
“The vulnerability assessment informs security agencies what measures to take and at what point. The overall objective of risk analysis is to develop a plan to pre-empt any threats. This is what is happening with regard to this vendors issue. But the truth is that since the elections, government has been in a panic mode due to economic and social problems, mainly unemployment and retrenchments.”
Intelligence sources say government is divided over civil servants retrenchments and bonuses, partly because some fear that could fuel social discontent and ignite instability.
Although the Zanu PF government promised to create two million jobs by 2018 during election campaigns prior to the 2013 polls, company closures and redundancies are increasing at an alarming rate. A process is underway to try to retrench civil servants but intelligence sources say it might be stalled by political and security fears gripping government.
“JOC’s risk and vulnerability assessments show that vendors, if allowed to invade and occupy Harare central business district, could ignite an uprising at some point,” another security officer said.
“If protests start in the city they would be difficult to manage and contain compared to isolated townships. So these vendors have to be removed for that reason. Don’t forget how one Tunisian vendor’s self-immolation sparked a chain of events that ultimately toppled regimes in North Africa and shook some in the Middle East.”
The Arab spring uprisings all began on December 17, 2010 on the streets of the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid when an impoverished street vendor, Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi confronting the sheer hopelessness of his desperate situation, set himself ablaze. Within weeks, a once seemingly indestructible regime was toppled and uprisings engulfed the region.
The sources said the fact that this week Presidential Guard commander Brigadier-General Anselem Sanyatwe gave vendors a seven-day ultimatum to leave the city or face the consequences is clear testimony to the grave concerns security chiefs loyal to President Robert Mugabe have over the influx of hawkers into the cities.
The government wanted to drive out vendors from Harare’s city centre ahead of the Sadc summit in April, but held back after the hawkers threatened to disrupt the conference through a series of demonstrations.
As part of efforts to divide vendors security agents have reportedly infiltrated the unions to sow divisions and create confusion. The move, sources said, would emasculate the vendors making it easier for the authorities to subdue and drive them away.
The move to push out vendors using the military has been criticised by human rights activists, while organisations such as Veritas and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights have questioned its legality. Some senior government officials are also said to be against the idea, while prominent lawyer Tendai Biti yesterday warned vendors would seek legal recourse to stop forced removal.
Since the last election government has been splurging on expensive police and military equipment to bolster its repressive arsenal to quell any potential disturbances.
In December 2013, for example, government brought hardware which included anti-riot gear and equipment, trucks and armoured vehicles worth millions of dollars, as first reported in the Independent then.
At a Zimbabwe Republic Police passout parade at Morris Depot last month, Mugabe commissioned 97 vehicles among them 20 buses, all-terrain troop-carrying trucks, water cannons and ordinary trucks.
Home Affairs minister Kembo Mohadi said the vehicles, which make large–scale deployment of police officers easier, would enhance police capacity.
“The 20 buses and 77 trucks were acquired through a local company to enhance police capacity in ensuring peace and tranquility,” Mohadi said.
Relevant personnel and the vehicles have since been deployed countrywide.
The United States this week warned Zimbabwe is sliding back to repression and violence with human rights abuses resurfacing. It said as a result there would be no policy shift towards Harare from Washington DC.
The EU has also expressed concern, especially after the abduction and disappearance of journalist-turned-civic activist Itai Dzamara.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary Shannon Smith, who visited Zimbabwe last month, on Wednesday told the US House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Africa in Washington DC that her government remains gravely concerned about the economic and political situation in Zimbabwe, including the human rights environment, and as a result there would be no policy change towards the economic crisis-ridden country from America.
A French delegation would be in Harare today to engage government politically for the first time in over a decade.
Although Western countries have been sending business and trade delegations to Harare in recent months, they are wary of warning signs that Zimbabwe is not reforming and is still vulnerable to regression and a slide back to repression and violence.
Mugabe, taking advantage of his Sadc and AU chairmanship, has been travelling the whole world as if things are normal back home when in fact threats of repression and brutality lie just below the surface as the vendors’ crisis shows.