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Zimbabwe's Problems Mars Its Independence Celebrations

  • Peta Thornycroft

Zimbabwe celebrates 30 years of independence this weekend but there is little hope for the future in a country only slowly recovering from economic collapse after three decades of President Robert Mugabe's rule.

The first two years of Zimbabwe's independence were optimistic. Good crops and peace after 15 years of civil war.

Mr. Mugabe, now 86, spearheaded a guerrilla war against white minority rule in the then Rhodesia, along with Joshua Nkomo, founder of the liberation party called Zimbabwe Africa People's Union, or ZAPU.

In the end, the British negotiated a peace deal along with a new constitution and Mr. Mugabe's party swept into power in 1980 after its first election since it gained independence. "We had free and fair elections and the results are what you now know," he said.

Senator David Coltart, one of Zimbabwe's top human rights lawyers, is now education minister in an tense coalition government. He, like many, had fears about Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF when they came to power. "The 18th of April 1980. I had mixed emotions. because on the one hand I was excited by the end of the war but on the other hand many of us still had ZANU-PF's rhetoric ringing in our ears that there would be retribution and that there would be some form of Marxist Leninist policy applied to the government. So I think that there was a fair amount of anxiety mixed in with the joy of peace," he said.

Within two years of independence, Mr. Mugabe, then prime minister, sent in North Korean trained troops against the then opposition party, ZAPU, led by Joshua Nkomo.

Human rights lawyers, like Mr. Coltart, and the churches said their research shows about 20,000 ZAPU supporters, who were mostly from the minority Ndebele tribe, were killed and many more fled the country.

The origins of the hostility between Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF from the majority Shona tribe and ZAPU surfaced in public just before the first democratic elections.

Instead of fighting the election as one political party as had been planned, Mr. Mugabe rejected the alliance with ZAPU and the two parties ran separately.

Gibson Sibanda, was a member of ZAPU and had been in detention. "It more or less became a tribal election, people were thinking on tribal lines, on ethnicity and it continued for quite some time after the 1980 elections," he said.

Sibanda later became president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union, which played a key role in formation of the Movement for Democratic Change when it was formed in late 1999.

The MDC nearly beat ZANU-PF in the 2000 elections, and Sibanda and its president, Morgan Tsvangirai, were then regularly harassed and detained.

The MDC, which narrowly won the 2008 elections is now in a unity government with Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF. Many believe Mr. Tsvangirai, who is prime minister in the unity government, has been cheated out of victories against Mr. Mugabe in the 2000 and 2008 elections.

About 1,000 MDC supporters have been killed, thousands injured and tens of thousands arrested since the MDC was formed, despite the fact it has support across all tribal and racial groups in Zimbabwe.

For years, Mr. Mugabe has claimed that the West supported the MDC, mostly targeting Britain. He recently re-iterated his stance on the former colonial power. "I will never, never, never, never surrender. Zimbabwe is mine. I am a Zimbabwean. Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans. Zimbabwe never for the British. Britain for the British," he said.

But, many Zimbabweans now believe that the greatest threat to Mr. Mugabe's wish to continue in power is the economic devastation brought by his controversial policies.
While the fragile coalition has stabilized the economy and re-opened schools and hospitals, it is too broke to rebuild collapsed public infrastructure and provide clean water.
At least eight out of 10 potential workers are unemployed, and organized crime and corruption are increasing in the wake of a decade-long economic recession.

Many analysts say that Mr. Mugabe is resisting political reforms and delaying progress of the unity government to buy time so that ZANU-PF can rebuild itself before the next elections due in about two years.

While Mr. Mugabe argues that many of his policies were meant to correct colonial injustices and economically empower native Zimbabweans, it has left a former bread basket of the region surviving on food handouts.