Mon, Feb 19, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Army, police begin to desert Robert Mugabe

AWOL Zimbabwe's autocratic regime may be facing new instability as police and soldiers desert a government that cannot pay them enough to support their own

THE OBSERVER , JOHANNESBURG

Widespread desertions from Zimbabwe's army and police are hurting President Robert Mugabe's security forces as large strikes loom because of the country's deepening economic collapse.

With inflation now at a global record of 1,600 percent, soldiers and police officers who cannot feed their families are leaving their posts in large numbers.

Flyers of army officers who have gone missing are posted in the hallways of the King George VI headquarters in Harare and the 1 Commando quarters near the airport, according to journalists.

"There are AWOL notices up in the barracks, our reporter saw them," said Bill Saidi, editor of the Standard newspaper. "Discontent is very high up to mid-level officers. They do not earn enough to buy basic groceries. They are suffering the hardships all of us suffer now, yet they are the ones Mugabe depends upon to be ruthless in putting down any opposition. It adds up to trouble for Mugabe."

Unhappiness is also rife among police. More than 10 percent of officers have resigned and will leave next month, according to a report by Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri, leaked to the Harare press. Many are joining the flood of the more than 2 million Zimbabweans estimated to be in South Africa.

Mugabe can ill afford weakening security forces because popular unrest is growing. A strike of doctors and nurses at government hospitals is in its eighth week and threatens to spread to teachers and civil servants. Trade unions are considering calling a nationwide general strike, despite the beatings and torture meted out to labor leaders last September.

In an interview published on Saturday, Mugabe accused Britain of refusing dialogue with its former colony, and said he expects ties to improve after Prime Minister Tony Blair steps down. Harare's official Herald newspaper said Mugabe, at odds with Britain since ordering the seizure of white-owned farms in 2000, had asked former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa to try to broker talks with Britain, but later asked him to step down because the task was "insurmountable."

"Blair behaves like a headmaster, old-fashioned, who dictates that things must be done his way: `Do it or you ... remain an outcast,'" Mugabe was quoted as saying. "But we are hoping that with the departure of Blair, there will be a better situation and they can be talked to."

Mugabe, ruler of Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980, claimed Britain has been trying to oust him. But the UK says Zimbabwe's long-running political and economic crisis is a result of rights abuses, vote-rigging and skewed policies that have nothing to do with London.

Zimbabwe is also plagued by widespread power blackouts, often lasting more than eight hours. A breakdown in municipal water treatment is blamed for an outbreak of cholera in Harare's Mabvuku township. Life expectancy has plummeted to 36, the world's lowest, the economy has shrunk by 50 percent since 2000 and inflation hit its record last week. The IMF predicts it will soar to more than 4,000 percent this year.

Mugabe's supporters -- trying to raise US$2 million to stage celebrations to mark his 83rd birthday -- appear unperturbed. The funds and advertisements praising him will come from the state-owned utilities that are failing to provide clean water, electricity and transport.

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