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Wednesday, January 27, 1999 Published at 22:48 GMT

Seeking the truth in Zimbabwe

Mark Chavunduka (right) and Ray Choto (centre) were allegedly tortured

By Grant Ferrett in Zimbabwe

A group of reporters and cameramen were gathered under the elegant colonial arches of the High Court in Harare in an effort to keep out of a torrential downpour when a policeman asked them to move outside into the rain.

He was, he explained, just following the rules.

The assembled journalists laughed at the irony of it all. We were waiting for the outcome of yet another court hearing at which the government was due to explain why military police were still holding the editor of the Standard newspaper, Mark Chavunduka, nearly a week after he disappeared.

No explanations from the government

[ image: Congolese President Laurent Kabila : Supported by Zimbabwe]
Congolese President Laurent Kabila : Supported by Zimbabwe
There have been four such hearings and at each one, the Defence Minister, Moven Mahachi, has failed to appear.

Each time the court ordered the minister to present himself with the detained newspaper editor or face arrest. Each time, officers of the court were unable to find the minister to serve the order.

In fairness, he has been a busy man ever since Zimbabwe took the leading role in supporting the Congolese President Laurent Kabila, in his battle against rebels.

Mr Mahachi isn't the only one who's proved difficult to pin down during this saga.

The government's most senior law officer, the Attorney General, said he was unable to explain the government's actions in court because he hadn't been briefed by the Ministry of Defence.

Judiciary's unease with case

One of the judges who was due to hear the case was suddenly taken ill and excused himself from further involvement.

[ image: Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for 19 years]
Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for 19 years
The judiciary is one of the few parts of the state to have retained any independence during 19 years of one-party rule by Zanu-PF, led by Robert Mugabe. But even the judges have appeared uneasy with this particular case.

Issuing orders which could result in the arrest of the Defence Minister and the head of the Zimbabwean police are not likely to win any friends in government.

The question which is increasingly being asked about the government of Zimbabwe is, 'Are they doing this deliberately, or are they simply inept?'

Zimbabwe has more than its share of natural resources, has a good, if ageing, network of roads and railways, and has probably the best-educated population in sub-Saharan Africa.

Zimbabwe's economic problems

Why then, is it suffering from annual inflation of 45%, unemployment of 50% and recurring general strikes?

Why do ministers continue to send out conflicting signals over the highly-contentious land redistribution programme, the latest stage of which involved the acquisition of nearly 850 farms.

Why did the Ministry of Finance last week impose a tax on share dealings, which led to the closure of the stock exchange for several days?

One theory suggests that the government has simply been in power too long, has run out of ideas and has become sloppy in the absence of any effective opposition.

[ image: President Mobutu of Zaire led his country to ruin]
President Mobutu of Zaire led his country to ruin
A more sinister interpretation suggests that the leadership is following the model of the late President Mobutu of Zaire, who ensured his personal survival at the top of the heap by reducing his country to ruins.

No one was in a position to challenge him because the rest of the population was too busy struggling to survive in the chaos he created.

Coup plot story

The detention and apparent torture of Mark Chavunduka and his reporter, Ray Choto, is the most spectacular example of the government shooting itself in the foot.

The coup plot story published by the Standard newspaper was thin on detail and was largely overlooked outside Zimbabwe. The reaction of the authorities has ensured that the story has been repeated over and over again around the world.

What's more, if the case against the two men ever comes to court, the newspaper intends to produce the evidence it says it has to back up its story. The media will, once again, have a field day.

'Government by knee-jerk'

The government's case has not been helped by the fact that it is using the discredited Law and Order (Maintenance) Act, which was employed by the white Rhodesian government in the 1970s against the very people who are now in power.

"What are the authorities thinking of?" I asked one well-established human rights campaigner. "They're not thinking," came the reply. "This is government by knee-jerk."

Back at the High Court, the policeman was unsuccessful in trying to push the journalists out into the rain. They stampeded past him when the managing director of the Standard, Clive Wilson, appeared on the steps to announce that, once again, the portly Minister of Defence had not appeared to explain himself, because no one could find him.

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