Troops fume over pay

Soldiers are furious at President Robert Mugabe’s government for refusing to pay them partly in foreign currency, a move meant to avoid a repetition of the December riots, which saw hundreds of them go on the rampage in Harare.

When they received their salaries on January 16, a day late, they were paid only in local currency.

The government has been debating paying soldiers allowances for overtime, transport, housing and education in hard currency to try to contain growing discontent in the armed forces.

During a commander’s parade last week Brigadier-General Douglas Nyikayaramba told soldiers not to expect salaries in foreign currency because the government did not have adequate hard cash to pay the 25 000-strong force, but it was considering paying allowances this way. He did not specify when this would start.

The non-taxable allowances are paid in addition to basic pay to cushion the soldiers, who are not housed by the government or provided with transport to and from work.

With the unofficial dollarisation of the economy the soldiers wanted at least part of their pay in January in hard currency. In addition to the usual subsidies for transport, housing and education, they expected a hardship allowance.

It is understood that troop representatives want the lowest-ranked soldier paid a minimum of US$2 000 a month. Privates, the lowest-paid soldiers, receive about US$13 a month.

A captain at a Harare barracks, who refused to be named, warned that the government might face worse riots than those in December.

He had received reports that angry soldiers had attacked Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono’s farm close to Norton, 40km west of Harare in Mashonaland West province, taking cabbages from a field and chickens and goats, which they said they would sell for the foreign currency he had denied them.

Rumours that top army officers receive part of their salaries in foreign currency have particularly angered lower-ranking soldiers.

In a secret operation to secure their loyalty the government is said to have partly paid the salaries of soldiers ranked from colonel upwards in hard currency, with the lowest taking home US$2 000 a month.

Meanwhile, Jason Moyo reports that Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change head into an emergency regional summit on January 26, both hoping for a formal declaration that power-sharing talks have failed and will not continue.

But neither Mugabe nor Morgan Tsvangirai seem to have a workable plan B.

Mugabe is hoping the summit will give him the green light to unilaterally form a government. Zimbabwe’s economic crisis is worsening and once-assured bastions of his power are waning. He needs a large financial injection to pay thousands of soldiers and striking civil servants in foreign exchange.

Following the failure of this week’s 12-hour Southern African Development Community meeting in Harare, chaired by President Kgalema Motlanthe to resolve the impasse, diplomats said patience had almost run out in the region.

Should no deal be reached at Monday’s summit, fresh elections seem the likely next step. But Mugabe would almost certainly use the same violent tactics as he did in last year’s elections to cling to power.

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