Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg
Sunday February 18, 2007
With inflation now at a global record of 1,600 per cent, The Observer can reveal that soldiers and police officers who cannot feed their families are leaving their posts in large numbers.
Flyers of army officers who have gone missing are posted in the hallways of the King George VI headquarters in Harare and the 1 Commando quarters near the airport, according to journalists.
'There are Awol notices up in the barracks, our reporter saw them,' said Bill Saidi, editor of the Standard newspaper. 'Discontent is very high up to mid-level officers. They do not earn enough to buy basic groceries. They are suffering the hardships all of us suffer now, yet they are the ones Mugabe depends upon to be ruthless in putting down any opposition. It adds up to trouble for Mugabe.'
Unhappiness is also rife among police. More than 10 per cent of officers have resigned and will leave next month, according to a report by Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri, leaked to the Harare press. Many are joining the flood of the more than two million Zimbabweans estimated to be in South Africa.
Mugabe can ill afford weakening security forces as popular unrest is growing. A strike of doctors and nurses at government hospitals is in its eighth week and threatens to spread to teachers and civil servants. Trade unions are considering calling a nationwide general strike, despite the beatings and torture meted out to labour leaders last September.
Meanwhile, in an interview published yesterday Mugabe accused Britain of refusing dialogue with its former colony, and said he expects ties to improve after Tony Blair steps down. Harare's official Herald newspaper said the dictator, at odds with Britain since ordering the seizure of white-owned farms in 2000, had asked former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa to try to broker talks with Britain, but later asked him to step down because the task was 'insurmountable'.
'Blair behaves like a headmaster, old fashioned, who dictates that things must be done his way: "Do it or you... remain an outcast",' Mugabe is quoted as saying. 'But we are hoping that with the departure of Blair, there will be a better situation and they can be talked to.'
Mugabe, ruler of Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980, claimed Britain has been trying to oust him. But the UK says Zimbabwe's long-running political and economic crisis is a result of rights abuses, vote-rigging and skewed policies, which have nothing to do with London.
Zimbabwe is also plagued by widespread power blackouts, often lasting more than eight hours. A breakdown in municipal water treatment is blamed for an outbreak of cholera in Harare's Mabvuku township. Life expectancy has plummeted to 36, the world's lowest, the economy has shrunk by 50 per cent since 2000 and inflation hit its record last week. The International Monetary Fund predicts it will soar to above 4,000 per cent this year.
Yet Mugabe's supporters - now trying to raise more than £1m to stage lavish celebrations to mark his 83rd birthday on Wednesday - appear unperturbed. The funds and advertisements praising him will come from the same state-owned utilities that are failing to provide clean water, electricity and transport.
'Mugabe is acting as if nothing is amiss and everyone should be happy to celebrate his birthday. He is not picking up the signs of growing unrest,' said Saidi.