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No respite as new year dawns

Zimbabweans limped into the New Year bracing themselves for a much grimmer 2004 as the country's economic and political situation continues to deteriorate with the former teetering on the brink of disintegration.
Rodrick Mukumbira

Zimbabweans also have to deal with the consequences of being increasingly isolated from the rest of the world following the country's withdrawal from the Commonwealth group that sent shock waves into the minds of the populace.

The year 2003, like five others before it, was punctuated by more negative events than positive ones. For Zimbabweans, especially in the urban areas, 2003 encountered the worst shortages of basic commodities since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980. Over six million rural dwellers, who make the bulk of the country's 13.5 million population, also faced unprecedented starvation.

2003 also witnessed a marked increase of restiveness within Zimbabweans. Almost all essential service providers at some point downed their tools: from postal service staff to flight personnel, electricity utility workers, teachers and the on-going impasse between government and health professionals over salaries.

Zimbabwe's struggling economy continued to decline due to what analysts attributed to President Robert Mugabe's chaotic land reform and strained relationships with donors.

This scenario saw inflation in the country once revered as a bread basket for southern Africa hovering around 650 per cent in December as industry and commerce continued to under perform.

Tourism, for example, once the country's highest foreign currency earner, fell by 90 per cent between 2002 and 2003.

Human rights lawyer Brian Kagoro say the situation was compounded by the government's contempt of the rule of law and its vicious assault on Press freedom.

For the first time in the country's 23 year history, a crippling shortage of bank notes resulting in chaotic scenes in banking halls, became a common feature in most urban centres throughout the country.

Authorities blamed cross-border traders for externalizing the local currency but economists were convinced that a flourishing foreign currency black market was behind the shortages, which saw the introduction of bearers cheques, internal travellers cheques and the printing of larger denominations.

According to political analyst, Enerst Mudzengi, one of the major highlights of the year was undoubtedly the closure in September of "The Daily News", the country's sole independent daily paper.

"The move robbed many people of a platform to air their concerned, opinion and grievances," he says. "The closure itself was not executed in isolation, it was a well

orchestrated event that came within a plethora of other activities meant to shut Zimbabweans' democratic space.

The Daily News provided the only platform for opposition parties, especially the labour led Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to share their views on the country's political and economic situation - an issue missing from all State-run media.

The newspaper also reported widely on State-motivated political violence, which has been on-going since the 2000 parliamentary elections.

By shutting down the daily paper, the government alleged that it had not been well constituted and that it had not been registered by the State-appointed media commission,

which came into being in 2001. The Daily News had been challenging the board saying it was unconstitutional and aimed at stifling the private media.

"It is clear that Mugabe's regime has now mortgaged the nation and is sacrificing the people on the altar of political expediency," says Mudzengi.

Human rights group, Crisis Coalition of Zimbabwe's chairperson, John Makumbe identifies political violence perpetuated by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union -

Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) youths, trained under a national service in 2000 whose camouflage was to create employment, as having blighted the country's economic perfomance.

The youths who gained fame as Green Bombers because of their green uniform unleashed an orgy of violence on opposition party supporters in the run-up and aftermath of the 2002 presidential elections, killing maiming and raping people suspected of being MDC supporters.

"The scenario (generated by the youths) gave way to a fierce battle between the civil society and the opposition on one hand, and the ruling party on the other," says Makumbe.

He says Zimbabwe's withdrawal from the Commonwealth was because Mugabe had lost the battle at home and by pulling out of the Club he aimed at throwing the civil movements in the country into the wilderness.

The socio-political decay, Makumbe says, had severe implications leading to acute shortages of basic commodities, a potential humanitarian crisis as hunger and AIDS relentlessly preyed on the parched and battered Zimbabweans.

Of noted importance at the close of 2003 was the disquieting stalemate between the country's main political parties, ZANU-PF and MDC.

Efforts by regional leaders such as Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria to bring President Mugabe and MDC's leader Morgan Tsvangirai to to negotiation table to seek a solution to the country's crisis failed.

President Mugabe demanded that Tsvangirai withdraws his court challenge of the 2002 elections results and for the opposition party to respect him as a rightfully elected

President before any negotiations commence. In his court challenge, Tsvangirai says Mugabe rigged the elections which were marred by widespread voter intimidation and violence. He is demanding that Mugabe steps down to pave way for fresh elections.

Religious groups in Zimbabwe also attempted to bring the two parties to the negotiation table but ZANU-PF brushed aside their initiatives saying the groups had no place in the country's political history.

The opposition MDC says it will employ other forceful means to bring Mugabe to the negotiation table.

In his end-of-year message in December to his supporters, Tsvangirai warned of potential civil unrest this year if the economic and political strife persisted.

"As the political stalemate persists, we are assessing the options with a view of unveiling a detailed programme of rolling mass actions in 2004. The suffering majority is ready for such action and we must cross the bridge," said Tsvangirai.

There seems no hope in sight for the problems befalling Zimbabweans. The economic woes have already worsened the country's crime levels. Zimbabweans continue to emigrate in millions to various destinations across the world, mainly to neighbouring Botswana and South Africa, the United Kingdom, the US and Australia in search of "greener pastures".

"Any hopes of recovery under the current government are mere dreams," says Tapiwa Chapfika, a security guard. "We have tried everything to show the government how we want to be governed but it is clear that ZANU-PF is so headstrong. "Only God can rescue us."

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