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Difficult 25th Birthday for Zimbabwe


Zimbabwean soldier runs past women members of ruling party at a ceremony in Harare
Zimbabwe was born on April 18, 1980, after a protracted guerilla war against white colonial rule. For a while, there was real optimism about the future, as the new nation made progress in a number of sectors, notably health and education. But in recent years, things have changed.

While many Zimbabweans will celebrate 25 years of freedom from colonialism, there are some who argue that, given the economic and political crises currently facing the country, there is little reason to party.

Heneri Dzinotyiwei, a professor at the University of Zimbabwe, recalled the feeling of hope and promise 25-years ago. He said that, just as people mark their birthdays even when the chips are down, Zimbabweans still have a lot to celebrate.

"There was that enormous feeling that nothing is completely impossible. This was a country that had waged a war for a very long time, which had very hostile relations between blacks and whites, and coming to [be] an independent country, and have a new government peacefully was a major achievement," said Professor Dzinotyiwei.

Steven Chifunyise, a former permanent secretary in the Education Ministry, also says that the government achieved a lot in the early years of independence. Mr. Chifunyise says achievements in education, up until recent years, will remain the current government's most enduring positive legacy.

"I think we can be quite proud of the investments of the early '80s, where the government made tremendous inputs into the education sector, the health sector and the human development sector," reminded Mr. Chifunyise.

But Mr. Chifunyise says there were insufficient resources available to the government to fund its generous spending on social services, and that this provoked an economic crisis. As a result, the government adopted severe measures prescribed by the World Bank to remedy the situation.

Mr. Chifunyise says this marked the beginning of the economic woes, which have since beset the country.

But even before the euphoria of independence had died down, trouble was brewing in Zimbabwe. In the early 1980s, President Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, another nationalist leader and member of the government of national unity, fell out.

Mr. Nkomo was expelled from the government, and fled the country, saying his life was in danger. A group of his followers, aggrieved by his treatment and that of their party, took up arms and committed acts of terror in parts of the country. The government responded with military force that resulted in the death of thousands of innocent civilians.

Mr. Mugabe's critics say that his most serious failures have been in the area of human rights; and that this has detracted significantly from both the lofty ideals of the liberation struggle and the optimism at independence.

Otto Saki, a spokesperson for Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, explained that the government has retained some laws introduced during the colonial period, which were designed to, in his words, "keep blacks in their place." In addition, he says, Mr. Mugabe's government has introduced laws that further inhibit basic civil liberties, such as freedom of expression and association.

"I would basically say, on the basis of us being ruled by an individual, or by a party whom we feel, by and large, is made up of Zimbabweans, and suppressing on those Zimbabweans, is much worse than to have a foreigner doing the same, because he does not know who you are, or where you are coming from," continued Mr. Saki. "So, with regards to suppression of civil liberties, we might be going in the opposite direction, or far worse off than it was in the colonial era."

Mr. Saki says the human-rights situation in Zimbabwe worsened with the establishment in 1999 of the country's first credible opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. The government felt threatened, he said, and resorted to repressive means to maintain its grip on power.

Mr. Mugabe's party recently won another disputed election. He has announced what he describes as a development Cabinet, as opposed to the one before it, which he called the war Cabinet.

This new Cabinet faces a chronic food shortage. International aid agencies say that Mr. Mugabe's sometimes violent land-reform program, launched in 2000, as well as serious droughts, have been key factors causing the food crisis.

The land reform program saw white farmers lose their property, ostensibly for the resettlement of landless blacks. The president has admitted that some of his top officials abused the exercise, and ended up with farms, some officials with more than one. A lack of capital for seeds, fertilizers and tools for black farmers also led to a drastic fall in production.

The Cabinet also has to deal with more than 120 percent inflation and 70 percent unemployment, while seeking to stem a massive brain drain and to resuscitate an ailing health delivery system, desperately needed to provide basic medical services and to tackle HIV and AIDS. With one in four adult Zimbabweans HIV positive, this young nation has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world.

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