27 April 2003

ZIMBABWE: Successful three-day strike among new rumors about Mugabe stepping down

The three-day Zimbabwean strike that ended on Friday, April 25, shifted the balance of power in local politics and set alarm bells ringing for President Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary-general Wellington Chibhebhe said that his organisation's stayaway in protest against massive fuel price hikes revealed a surging tide of popular anger about the country's political and economic crisis. The stayaway was widely followed, with the ZCTU claiming that 90% of the country's 600 000 labour force stayed at home. Most shops in Harare's central business district closed, although some small businesses remained open. Chibhebhe said that the strike showed that the government was losing its grip on the situation, while the unions and opposition groups were gaining clout. "The strike showed the ZCTU has muscle and that people have reached their elastic limit," he said. But Chibhebhe said the unions were not afraid of a government backlash. "We know there is going to be a lot of retribution but we are prepared for the consequences. People are committed to emancipate themselves."

Until recently, Mugabe appeared to be firmly in charge, but the strike indicated his influence could be rapidly diminishing. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which backed the stayaway, now seems to be stealing the march on Mugabe's Zanu PF. ZCTU officials met yesterday to review the situation, and leaders from the militant labour movement, which represents about 250 000 workers, agreed to embark on further action against the government to force it to tackle Zimbabwe's dire problems. Government authorities reacted to the stayaway with a mixture of threats, denials and conciliatory measures. Information Minister Jonathan Moyo was one who adopted a combative position. "In the interests of the rule of law, relevant authorities in government are compiling data on those industries that have illegally locked out workers for reasons that are manifestly political and have done so at great cost to many other third parties," he said. He added that companies and those who participated in the mass action would be punished. The government also threatened to withdraw permits of transport operators who grounded their fleets during the strike. On Friday, armed police raided MDC headquarters in Harare and arrested more than 30 people. Those arrested included the party's director of security, Tendai Nyamushayi.

On the other hand, new rumors have emerged about Mugabe being finally prepared to step down from office. Presidents of South Africa, Nigeria and Malawi, Thabo Mbeki, Olusegun Obasanjo and Bakili Muluzi, are to visit their Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe, in the next few weeks to work out an exit plan for the ageing leader. In an interview with the Zimbabwean state broadcaster this week, Mugabe hinted that he was considering stepping down because the land issue had been dealt with. He said there was nothing wrong with people openly debating succession. The Sunday Times has learnt that an agreement was reached to reschedule a meeting between Mbeki, Obasanjo, Muluzi and Mugabe to discuss the matter. High-ranking South African officials say the three presidents want to "keep the momentum going" following Mugabe's "very positive signals this week". Among other issues, the leaders are to work out a "safe exit plan" and immunity from prosecution for alleged human rights abuses committed during Mugabe's 23-year rule. Mugabe is said to be particularly worried about the Matabeleland massacres during the 1980s.

The widely broadcast interview was the first direct indication that he wants to retire. "We are getting to a stage where we shall say fine, we settled this matter [land redistribution] and people can retire," said Mugabe. Earlier this year, signals of a retirement strategy surfaced following reports that parliamentary speaker Emmerson Mnangagwa had discussed the matter with the MDC. Zanu PF sources say Mugabe is anxious about the repercussions of his departure. "He wants to leave but his personal security fears, the fate of his family and property, his party's simmering succession problem . . . are his main obstacles," a senior party source said. Local human rights groups have also been fuelling his apprehension by calling for his prosecution. And Tsvangirai says Mugabe's personal security, after he relinquishes power, can only be guaranteed in the context of a negotiated settlement of the Zimbabwe crisis.

But in a rare conciliatory move, Mugabe said he was prepared to talk to Tsvangirai if he dropped his court challenge to the election results. Brian Raftopoulos, a political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe , said this showed Mugabe was willing to go. "He appears ready to go now. This is because he has no solution to the political and economic crisis the country is facing ," Raftopoulos said. In response to a question put to Mugabe during the interview as to whether he was concerned about Obasanjo's efforts to get him to step down, and Mbeki's criticism of human rights abuses, he said: "Their stance is consistent, they believe the elections were valid. They believe the government here is legitimate. And they know we are supported by the majority of the people. We know the thinking of the ANC, and the thinking of the President [Mbeki]...There is interaction at various levels." Mugabe denounced "clandestine groupings" manoeuvring to take over. He said he was aware that his lieutenants were looking beyond him and plotting for a final assault on power. Three groups are already scrambling for power in anticipation of Mugabe's exit. Retired army general Solomon Mujuru, Zanu PF secretary for administration Mnangagwa and Information Minister Jonathan Moyo are seen as the individuals heading the three factions. (ZWNews / Sunday Times, Johannesburg)

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