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Zimbabwe Defence Minister Moven Mahachi: "We want to defend peace"
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Thursday, 3 December, 1998, 16:41 GMT
Mugabe's unpopular war
Congolese troops
Congolese troops: Foreign support has helped Laurent Kabila's forces keep rebels at bay
By Grant Ferrett in Harare

More than three months after the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, sent the first contingent of several hundred troops to support his embattled counterpart in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Laurent Kabila, little or no hard information is available about the extent of Zimbabwe's involvement in the war.

Government ministries refuse to disclose how many troops and air force personnel are taking part in the conflict, although it is widely thought to have risen to about 10,000, or approximately a third of Zimbabwe's total armed forces.

Nor is there any credible account of how many casualties Zimbabwe has suffered.

Officially, the number of dead and wounded remains at fewer than ten.

In the absence of hard facts from the government, the rumour mill has gone into overdrive. Everyone seems to have a friend whose brother has deserted from the army rather than go to fight in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Laurent Kabila
Laurent Kabila: Close ties with Mr Mugabe
According to one elaborate variation on the theme, a whole planeload of troops recently hijacked the aircraft taking them to the Congo and forced it to turn back to Zimbabwe.

On landing, the entire force deserted and is still being sought.

There's no confirmation of such stories, but they are an indication of just how unpopular the war has become.

Any initial enthusiasm has evaporated as the conflict drags on and the original, limited objective of defending the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, from rebels has become an open-ended commitment to drive "invading" forces from the country.

A Zimbabwean Hawk fighter aircraft at Kinshasa airport in August 1998
A Zimbabwean Hawk fighter aircraft at Kinshasa airport in August 1998
"I think our involvement in the war has created a lot of confidence among our people, in that our army is recognised as being one of the best in Africa for the wonderful job it has done in the Congo," says the Information Minister, Chen Chimutengwende.

Government ministers aside, though, it is difficult to find anyone who has a good word to say about the war.

Trouble at home

There is a widespread feeling that Zimbabwe should be concentrating on sorting out its own problems rather than participating in a conflict more than 1,000 km from its borders.

The annual rate of inflation is approaching 40%, unemployment is about 50% and the value of the Zimbabwe dollar has fallen spectacularly in the past few months.

Involvement in the war has shaken confidence in an already weakened economy.

"Mugabe is just boosting his own ego," according to John Makumbe, a lecturer in political science at the University of Zimbabwe and a persistent critic of the government.

"The president is playing an obsolete game of thinking that if he's involved in a war, that should boost his image among the people."

But Dr Makumbe believes that such a strategy is doomed to failure because the cost , which is estimated to be more than 1m dollars a day, is unsustainable.

Investment opportunities

The government says quite openly that it is hoping for investment opportunities in the Congo as a result of the war.

"Are we going to lose lives and millions of dollars for nothing?" asked a recent editorial in the state-run Herald newspaper. "We should be fast and aggressive like the South Africans who don't see a war in the Congo but a business opportunity."

The Zimbabwean authorities display a sensitivity verging on paranoia towards South Africa, which they feel has been insufficiently grateful for Zimbabwe' s undoubted sacrifices in the struggle against apartheid.

But while President Mugabe competes with the South African president, Nelson Mandela, for the mantle of Africa's most influential leader, the Zimbabwean population suffers.

As one shopper said during a recent round of panic buying sparked by reports that the price of basic commodities was going up by 20%: "Things have got out of hand. We can't afford to buy food, we can't buy clothes. We're just striving to survive."

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See also:

03 Apr 00 | Africa
Mugabe faces rough ride
03 Apr 00 | Africa
Britain's troubles with Mugabe
Links to other Zimbabwe stories are at the foot of the page.

Links to other Zimbabwe stories