On the brink of civil unrest

While President Robert Mugabe goes off on yet another overseas jaunt – his 17th or so trip abroad this year – Zimbabwe creeps closer towards the edge. Recent events suggest that anger is rising among the reputedly ‘peace loving’ citizens.

Grand coalition

Grand coalition

Lately, Mugabe’s government has waged a futile war against street vendors, a move that will backfire against the ancient leader. The majority of Zimbabweans earn under $200 a month. With unemployment at more than 80% and most senior citizens having lost their pensions after the weakening and subsequent demonetisation of the Zim dollar, the majority of the population either eek a living out of vending or survive on the charity of compatriots in the Diaspora, believed to number more than 3million.

Pre 1999, the pavements of our cities were navigable, even during peak business hours. But now, unless one possesses a strong pair of elbows, the sidewalks have become impassable, due to the high number of hawkers who peddle anything from bootleg CDs, foodstuffs, underwear, hardware, drugs, herbs to cell phones.

Even in service station forecourts and supermarket doorways, which were once sacrosanct, hawkers now vie with the proprietors for customers. Beyond street vending, there has also been a hike in backyard business. In some areas, there are entire streets which have been converted into markets by residents who are desperate to provide for their families. In February, the City of Harare threatened to ban urban poultry farming, but no steps have been taken to abolish the trade, as the council bylaw is virtually impossible to enforce due to the vast numbers.

Police fear factor

The war against the urban poor – declared by former local government minister, Ignatius Chombo and now directed by his successor, Saviour Kasukuwere – is likely to be Mugabe’s proverbial self-inflicted gunshot wound. With the main opposition parties boycotting the June by-elections, Mugabe made significant gains in parliamentary seats, giving him control of opposition strongholds for the first time in over a decade.

But rather than consolidate his rare victory in these areas, Mugabe has instead chosen to make enemies of the beleaguered masses. Tsvangirai, who leads the strongest opposition faction, has gone back on his election boycott and will contest the next polls, scheduled for 2018. But it is possible that Mugabe may not complete his seventh term, should the current situation persist.

A fortnight ago, police torched vendor stalls, destroying goods worth thousands of dollars. This past week, the vendors were not so civil in the face of provocation and violence broke out between police and hawkers. The intimidating aura that once radiated off the ZRP uniform seems to have diminished in recent times.

In May 2014, members of the once feared anti-riot squad were thoroughly beaten by members of the Johanne Masowe apostolic sect, bringing to mind that old fable about the owl’s harmless horns. In the same year, ZRP had to be rescued by the army after violence broke out in Chingwizi, a refugee camp for victims of the Tokwe-Mukosi floods.

Even convicts, weakened by malnutrition and disease, recently staged the first ever prison riot during Mugabe’s 35-year reign. Prison officers had to send out a distress call to the police, after inmates disarmed guards and engaged correctional officers in a protracted gunfight. State security forces no longer instil as much fear in civilians as in bygone years. Perhaps the only factor preventing a full blown civil war is government’s strict firearm policy.

Without employment, the vendors really have no alternative means of survival and for them this war is in defence of their livelihood. For most vendors, the destruction of their vending stalls is literally having the food snatched out of their children’s mouths. There is no greater motivation to rebel.

Frustrated youths

Adding fire to an already lit fuse is the idleness among youths. While economists estimate unemployment to be over 80%, Mugabe’s statisticians claim, with poker faces, that Zimbabwe only has a jobless rate of 11%. But government’s plan to export labour to Namibia, South Sudan and Botswana suggests that Mugabe does not believe his own lies of ‘11% unemployment.’

The biggest admission of the unemployment crisis is Zanu (PF)’s 2013 promise to create two million new jobs. If there are only 11% without jobs, it therefore makes no sense to promise millions of jobs. In African countries where civil unrest led to the overthrow of governments, it is always as a result of youth unemployment; simple logic – boys and girls with nothing to do tend to amuse themselves by throwing petrol bombs at the establishment.

Dzamara – hardly a threat

Itai Dzamara’s Occupy Africa Unity Square initiative was hardly a threat to Mugabe’s rule. After months of sit-ins, the small group had made little headway in their bid to force the President to step down. But the guerrilla style kidnap of the headstrong activist, by men believed to be state security agents, seems to have elevated the previously ignored Dzamara into both a martyr and unifying figure.

The formerly dormant civic groups have risen to action and opposition politicians have now added their voice to the prayers and ongoing campaign to bring back the abducted former journalist.

Itai’s brother, Patson, has remained resolute and now has a significant online following. Bibles can easily morph into bricks. Under these conditions of unemployment, anger and a collective search for closure, it may take one word to for a peaceful prayer session to escalate into full scale insurrection.

Powerful enemies

In 2014, Mugabe’s Stalinesque purge of Zanu (PF) rebels led to the ouster of several influential members of his inner circle. When any lieutenant abandons the platoon, chances are he takes with him several foot soldiers. The likes of Joice Mujuru, Didymus Mutasa, Rugare Gumbo, Nicholas Goche, Francis Nhema, Jabulani Sibanda and Temba Mliswa are not to be underestimated – a fact of which Mugabe is well aware.

The outcasts have coalesced under the Zanu (PF) People First banner, a faction which is strongly believed to have already reached out to opposition parties with the intention of forming an alliance. Joice Mujuru, whose late husband had strong political and military connections, has so far kept her cards close to her chest.

The deathblow for Mugabe would be Mujuru accepting the invitation to lead the People First faction. It is likely that the former VP is calculating the right moment to strike. In the meantime, conditions on the streets are growing ever riper for civil disobedience.

In 2000 and 2003, Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri’s charges quickly moved in to quell the violent food riots.

Of course, at the time, ZRP still had its fleet of Landrover Defenders. However, the police force, with its hatina mota mantra would struggle to cope if riots broke out simultaneously in different areas.

With the advent of social media, the dissemination of news has evolved since the information bottlenecks of the post millennium era. Now Mugabe, who often deals brutally with dissent, might have a difficult time concealing any strong-arm tactics under the watchful camera lenses of Twitter and Facebook. – Till next week, my pen is capped. Jerà Twitter @JeraZW

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Innovation showdown scheduled for Friday

Post published in: Analysis
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