/ 17 March 2008

Mugabe rival denies ‘puppet’ tag

A former finance minister challenging Robert Mugabe for the presidency denied on Sunday he was a Western puppet and said such accusations were to divert attention from Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown.

Simba Makoni, who analysts say poses one of Mugabe’s greatest tests in the election in two weeks’ time, is running as an independent candidate after being expelled from the ruling Zanu-PF party.

Makoni took his election campaign to his eastern home province of Manicaland, where he addressed a rally of about 3 000 people in Mutare.

”I’m nobody’s puppet. I’m not a puppet of the British or of the West,” he told supporters.

Mugabe has denounced opponents, including rival Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai, as charlatans, Western puppets, witches and political prostitutes.

Makoni accused Mugabe of trying to divert public attention from Zimbabwe’s economic crisis before the March 29 presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections.

Zimbabweans have suffered from the world’s highest inflation — over 100 000% a year — which has eroded incomes in the Southern African country. Some teachers, the bulk of state workers, are on strike and doctors have also threatened stoppages, crippling essential services.

”Mugabe has ruined the country but is hanging on to power behaving as if he is an indispensable leader,” Makoni said.

The reform-minded technocrat has said he is leading ”a movement” including a number of Zanu-PF members but says they will only make themselves known ”when the time is right”.

He accused Mugabe’s allies of ”letting down the country” by failing to stand up to him.

Despite the political challenge posed by Makoni and Tsvangirai, the opposition’s failure to unite behind one candidate could work in Mugabe’s favour.

Call to vote

Zimbabwe’s main labour union called on Sunday on millions of Zimbabweans living and working in South Africa to go home to vote in the elections, South Africa’s Talk Radio 702 reported.

”The situation back home is unfolding, therefore I appeal to them to cross the Limpopo and come and cast their votes,” Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) Secretary General Wellington Chibebe told Talk Radio 702.

An estimated three million Zimbabweans live and work in South Africa, out of a total Zimbabwean population of about 12-million.

Mugabe’s challengers and critics accuse him of buying votes to win the elections.

The South African Press Association quoted Chibebe as saying: ”The government has doled out billions of Zim dollars to the members of the armed forces as unsolicited loans. This is daylight vote-buying.”

Critics say subsidised loans and farm equipment for farmers, as well as promises by Mugabe last week to increase government workers’ salaries, also amount to vote-buying.

In power since independence from Britain in 1980, Mugabe denies mismanaging the economy and says it has been sabotaged by Western states as punishment for his land reforms which include confiscating farms from white farmers. – Reuters