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Saturday, 10 February, 2001, 11:49 GMT
Zimbabwe's descent into violence
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe
Mugabe: "Fanning the flames"
By Grant Ferrett in Harare

Coming to Zimbabwe in September 1998 showed a remarkable lack of judgement. I envisaged a fairly quiet life in a well-organised, reasonably prosperous country.

Everyone kept reminding me that this was "Africa for Beginners", not like the majority of other war-torn, corrupt or impoverished states which litter sub-Saharan Africa.

Zimbabwe's descent began just before my arrival, with President Mugabe's decision to send more than 10,000 troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo, in support of the late president Laurent Kabila.

It is a war which has helped to destroy the economy here and fatally undermine support for Mr Mugabe.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai wants Mr Mugabe impeached
The government's panicked response in the run-up to last year's elections was to attempt to divert attention by playing up the already highly contentious land issue, while simultaneously unleashing a campaign of violence against the increasingly popular opposition.

Playing with fire

Last April I attended a ruling party rally at which President Mugabe, dressed army-style in olive green, warned the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, that he was playing with fire.

"Let him not start the fire which may engulf him!" said Mr Mugabe, to cheers of approval. A week later, the police stood and watched as government supporters blocked the path of Mr Tsvangirai's campaign manager, Tichaona Chiminya.

The crowd beat Mr Chiminya unconscious before pouring petrol over him and setting him alight. He was one of the more than 30 people killed during the election campaign, nearly all of them from the opposition.

It is, of course, Mr Mugabe and his government which started the fire and are still busily fanning the flames. In a desperate attempt to stay in power, apparently unable to imagine a Zimbabwe without it in charge, the ruling party has resorted to intimidation on a national scale.

War Veterans' campaign

The War Veterans Association has, it seems, been given a free hand to do whatever is necessary to keep the opposition at bay.

Neil Hammond with an injured worker
Black farm workers and their white bosses have been attacked
Occupying white-owned farms and attacking the farmers and their workers is now so routine that it goes largely unreported. A more novel war veteran tactic is to take over the offices of local authorities they believe to be anti-government.

Civil servants and teachers are viewed with particular suspicion, mainly because they are well-educated. The police response is usually to do nothing - this, they explain, is political. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

My most vivid image of my time here is of the war veteran leader, Chenjerai Hunzvi, leaning from the passenger window of a truck, wild-eyed and screaming.

He was trying to persuade the driver of my car to pull over. This was in the middle of a by-election campaign which, even by Zimbabwe's standards, was remarkably violent.

Opposition members of parliament said Mr Hunzvi had personally thrown a petrol bomb at them as they attempted to campaign.

Given that, we declined his invitation to stop, and instead performed a hasty U-turn, neatly avoiding another truckload of jeering government supporters in the process. It was all a little too close for comfort.

Fear and secrecy

Zimbabweans queue for bread
Many Zimbabweans blame Mugabe for economic hardship
Almost as uncomfortable was a telephone interview with the Information Minister, Jonathan Moyo, two days after the bombing of the printing presses of the Daily News newspaper.

I asked if the government intended to abide by the latest Supreme Court judgement - as usual, the court had ruled against President Mugabe.

The minister tends simply to hang up when he hears my name, but this time he launched into a tirade against the BBC in general and me in particular. His final shouted words were, "You should be more careful!"

Dire consequences

The consequences of President Mugabe's decision to abandon the rule of law are obvious - car-jackings and other armed robberies are now routine.

Far more serious, though, is the collapse of the economy, which contracted by four per cent last year, and will continue to shrink.

It's no longer a question of whether Zimbabwe will suffer food shortages this year, but how severe they will be - and this in a country which traditionally exports food.

The government's cynical attempts to undermine race relations are equally depressing.

Yes, the fire is well and truly raging, and could well engulf Mr Mugabe along with everybody else.

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See also:

26 Oct 00 | Africa
Mugabe under pressure
08 Sep 00 | Africa
Mugabe attacks the 'masters'
30 Sep 00 | Africa
Opposition warning to Mugabe
18 Oct 00 | Africa
Zimbabwe: Economic melt-down
18 Oct 00 | Africa
Third day of protests in Zimbabwe
17 Oct 00 | Africa
Zimbabwe riots intensify
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