Thousands of Zimbabwean war veterans gathered in Harare on Friday to lead a ”million-man march” in support of President Robert Mugabe’s bid to extend his rule despite a severe economic crisis blamed on his government.
Mugabe (83) and in power since Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980, is seeking re-election in presidential and parliamentary elections set for March 2008 after some senior officials in his Zanu-PF party failed to stop him from running.
Mugabe, who looks fit for his age and remains combative in the face of a crumbling economy and growing discontent — has mobilised his independence war veterans, his shock political troops, to assert his authority.
Thousands of Zanu-PF supporters — ferried into the capital Harare by bus and train — converged at various points in the city on Friday, singing revolutionary songs and pledging support for one of the world’s most controversial leaders.
Men and women, both young and old, jogged around as they prepared to march for kilometres to Zimbabwe Grounds — a sprawling sports arena in Harare’s Highfield township — where Mugabe was due to address them later in the day.
Although Mugabe has managed to ride out the storm in the last seven years, analysts say he faces a potent threat from the economy — seen by the World Bank as the fastest shrinking outside a war zone — because it may spark social unrest.
Opponents allege Mugabe, a master of political intrigue, has seen off challenges through tough policing, vote-rigging and patronage to reward supporters. He denies the accusations.
Mugabe’s record of punishing Zanu-PF officials who cross him has left party members more reluctant than ever to speak publicly about the party’s internal debates, analysts say.
But some Zanu-PF officials quietly say the economy and their business interests suffered under Mugabe’s leadership and want him to step aside and appoint a successor capable of reviving the economy and improving strained ties with key Western donors.
War veterans leader Jabulani Sibanda told state media that the ”one million-men and women march” was meant to demonstrate that Mugabe, who co-led Zimbabwe’s independence war in the 1970s, enjoyed solid support despite Western powers’ opposition to his rule.
”Comrade Mugabe is our leader, and we are prepared to wage another war to defend his leadership and our sovereign right to choose our own revolutionary leader,” he said.
The economy has all but collapsed since Mugabe ordered the seizure of white-owned farms to give to landless blacks in 2000, gutting the key commercial agriculture sector.
Zimbabwe has suffered a wave of sporadic labour strikes over pay, forcing Mugabe to print money to keep his grip on the economy, analysts say.
Zimbabwe’s finance minister proposed cutting taxes for the growing number of poor, increasing taxes on some manufacturers and cracking down on the black market as cures for his nation’s economic crisis.
Samuel Mumbengegwi’s budget speech on Thursday was televised — but unavailable to many here because of power failures. Opposition lawmakers jeered when Mumbengegwi said priority was to be given in 2008 to restoring electricity supplies and boosting the government’s near-dormant rural electrification programme.
Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown has seen official inflation reach 8 000%, chronic shortages of food, fuel and hard currency, and daily water and power failures as public utilities fail to replace aging equipment and pay for imported spare parts.
”The reality is that we are on our own and need to increase our self reliance,” Mumbengegwi said. ”That will entail endurance.”
The chief government statistician had said earlier this week that goods used in calculating average inflation were not available in stores across the country and so the figures, usually issued at the beginning of each month, would be delayed.