Crumbling economy threatens Mugabe’s grip

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe survived years in colonial prisons and still more years of international isolation.

He has weathered the challenge of a now weak and divided opposition, seen pressure from Western powers fade, and maintained support from neighbouring countries that still regard him as an African liberation hero.

But Zimbabwe’s deepening economic turmoil could be the veteran leader’s Achilles’ heel and pose the biggest threat to his 27-year rule, analysts say.

Discontent is growing on the streets despite a tough crackdown on dissent that has drawn accusations of widespread human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions and torture.

”In my view, although they appear to be in control, their grip has loosened and the economic crisis remains a big threat,” said Eldred Masunungure, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.

”Things have gone so bad in the last two months that they are finding it difficult to explain that the government is not to blame for the food shortages, the electricity cuts, the water and transport problems,” he added.

Food, fuel and foreign currency shortages and the world’s highest inflation rate of more than 7 000% show no signs of easing. Mugabe imposed a price freeze that backfired, leaving store shelves empty and spreading frustrations.

”I don’t think they have a workable plan to get out of this crisis, and actually all the programmes they have been trying have been a real disaster,” said John Robertson, a leading private economic consultant.

”Their programmes have made things worse, and as things get worse, they are also getting worse in terms of their plans and their management.”

Classic strategy

Critics say Mugabe’s controversial policy of seizing white-owned farms for landless black Zimbabweans in 2002 has destroyed the economy by undermining farming.

But Mugabe is still pursuing his classic strategy of trying to focus public attention away from his failures by condemning his Western foes, especially former colonial master Britain.

Mugabe accuses Western powers of trying to oust him in retaliation for the land grabs, carried out by liberation war veterans, sometimes violently.

At stake is the economy, once one of Africa’s most promising. The World Bank says Zimbabwe’s economy is shrinking faster that any outside a war zone.

Hardships have forced millions of Zimbabweans to neighbouring nations with few hopes of jobs or a future.

But explaining the economic meltdown to empty-handed Zimbabweans who wait in long food and fuel queues is becoming more and more difficult, analysts say.

”There is no doubt that almost everyone here, except the elite, is suffering badly and believe the government is not managing the economy well,” said Masunungure.

The possibility of economic collapse has not discouraged Mugabe (83).

Future options

The former Marxist guerrilla, once hailed as a model African democrat, has been tightening his grip on power ahead of next year’s political and parliamentary elections.

He is seeking to push two Bills through Parliament, which is dominated by his ruling Zanu-PF.

One is designed to give local companies majority ownership of foreign companies, including banks and mines, which are critical for investment in Zimbabwe.

The other would give him room to change the Constitution and allow him to choose a successor if he were to retire. That may not happen anytime soon.

”Mugabe is looking at the future and at his options. In my view the [constitutional amendment] Bill will give him some fairly reasonable space to ease himself out if he wants to, and to have a big say on who can come after him,” said Masunungure.

Looking fit and confident, Mugabe drew the loudest applause at a summit of regional leaders this month. It seems his credentials as a former freedom fighter still go a long way in African, where he has faced little public criticism.

On Wednesday, in a rousing speech to war veteran supporters, he vowed to crush his opponents in the contest and said nobody could ever force him into exile.

About 5 000 of the veterans of the country’s 35 000 rallied in support of Mugabe in a march on Wednesday, a potent reminder of the glorious old days of the independence war. — Reuters

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