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Zimbabwe's Continuing Implosion

Bishops Voice Concern as Repression Grows

HARARE, Zimbabwe, JUNE 19, 2005 (Zenit) - Zimbabwe's bishops are increasingly concerned over the government's lack of respect for basic human rights. Since the 1980 elections that followed the ousting of the white-led regime, the country has been ruled by President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF government. The parliamentary elections held last March 31 confirmed the ZANU-PF's control.

The March elections, however, were neither "free nor fair," observed a recent report by the nongovernmental organization International Crisis Group. A June 7 report by the group, titled "Post-Election Zimbabwe: What Next?", commented that the elections were manipulated "through a range of legal and extra-legal means to ensure that the election was basically decided well before the first voters reached the polls."

As well, President Mugabe has the right to appoint another 30 members of Parliament, which will take the ZANU-PF's numbers above the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution.

Evidence of the newfound power now enjoyed by the ruling party came in the move earlier this month by authorities to raze a residential district on the outskirts of the nation's capital, Harare. The zone, Mbare, was the country's largest market, according to a June 5 report in the London-based Sunday Times.

The newspaper report explained that Operation Murambatsvina, or "Clean Up the Filth," began in late May, when police arrived without warning at the shantytown of Hatcliff. The residents were ordered to return to their rural hometowns and everything was destroyed, including a large orphanage. Operation Murambatsvina has since spread to a number of localities.

The Sunday Times cited estimates by the opposition political party Movement for Democratic Change, which alleged that more than 1 million people have been left homeless by the operation, at a time when the winter is just starting. The opposition party said that the cities that have been targeted are those that voted against the ruling party in the March 31 elections.

"A grave crime"

The government replied, saying that the evictions were carried out to curb crime, according to a June 10 report in the British daily Guardian. But, the article noted that six Catholic bishops issued a statement describing the action as "a grave crime." The bishops added: "We warn the perpetrators ... history will hold you individually accountable."

The Guardian's report lowered the estimates of people affected, compared to the figures cited by the Sunday Times. According to the Guardian, more than 22,000 people have been arrested, with over 200,000 being victims of the destruction of their houses.

Archbishop Robert Ndlovu of Harare later condemned the government's actions, describing them as "inhuman," the BBC reported June 12. The prelate told BBC radio that it was particularly "inconsiderate" with the arrival of the winter season there, and observed that small children there are now obliged to sleep outdoors.

A June 11 report by the New York Times on the evictions commented that by eliminating the markets, dominated by illegal businesses, the government hopes to regain control over the economy, and above all, to obtain much-needed foreign currency. But, the article observed, with the black market having largely supplanted the official economy, the government's actions will probably only worsen the shortages of food and gasoline.

Another critic of the government is Archbishop Pius Ncube, of the country's second-most important city, Bulawayo. Interviewed just prior to the parliamentary elections by the Associated Press on March 27, he called for peaceful street protests aimed at overthrowing Mugabe, saying that the elections were certain to be rigged.

The Associated Press reported that following the opposition's success in the 2000 elections, when they won almost half the seats, Mugabe began redistributing white-owned farms to black Zimbabweans in a move to build his popularity. The result has been disastrous for the economy, which contracted by 50% in the last five years. The unemployment rate hovers around 70%, and the agricultural sector, once the nation's economic mainstay, has collapsed.

Last month Archbishop Ncube spoke out again. On his way to Scotland to receive the Robert Burns humanitarian award, he told the Guardian, in an article published May 20, that the opposition parties need to propose alternative leaders who can stand up to Mugabe's dictatorship. The archbishop said that people lack the most basic necessities, and he warned that many would die without outside food relief. He also accused the government of denying food aid to areas that had voted for the opposition.

Death threats

In an interview May 22 in the Scottish newspaper Sunday Herald, Bulawayo's archbishop described Mugabe as "a fascist, a fraudster, a liar and a godless murderer." He noted that the government's economic policy, particularly the confiscation of the white-owned farms, had led to economic ruin, with more than 3 million Zimbabweans -- around 20% of the population -- fleeing the country.

Archbishop Ncube also criticized the government's use of intimidation tactics, such as those employed by the National Youth Militia, also known as the Green Bombers. "They specialize in violence," said the archbishop. "This is killing off the souls of young people," he said in a reference to the indoctrination tactics used on the youth members. He also accused the government of threatening his life, saying that agents of the Central Intelligence Organization told him: "We can kill you and bury you in a shallow grave."

The archbishop received support from the Scottish bishops, during a meeting last Tuesday. In a press statement issued that day by the Scottish Catholic Media Office, they stated that they "express their concern that an estimated 100,000 of the poorest Zimbabweans have recently been evicted from their homes on the instructions of President Robert Mugabe."

And, noting the recent visit by Archbishop Ncube, they said: "We speak out in support of the archbishop and along with members of the Scotland Zimbabwe Group, we wish to express our solidarity with the dispossessed and to unite with our brother bishops in Zimbabwe who speak out in honesty and justice in defense of the dignity and humanity of the people of Zimbabwe."

Lack of interest

In an attempt to gain international support, a Catholic bishop and a Pentecostal prelate from Zimbabwe visited the United States last year. The Washington Post reported Oct. 22 that Bishop Trevor Manhanga, of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Zimbabwe, said that his country's situation ran the risk of being overlooked.

He was accompanied by Catholic Bishop Patrick Mutume of the Diocese of Manicaland. The two met with congressional staff members and a State Department official. They explained to the Washington Post why they were involving themselves in politics: "As members of the church, we have to continue educating our people on what to look for and what to hold elected officials accountable for."

A statement from the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference last year also expressed concern about Zimbabwe. In a press release dated Aug. 11 they called upon the international community to take stronger actions, including sanctions against Zimbabwe, in order to prevent further suffering.

"The Zimbabwean situation of starvation and malnutrition, willful political violence and intimidation, and the immoral use of food aid by the Zimbabwean government demands stronger and transparent intervention by African governments," said the bishops.

In its recent report the International Crisis Group noted that other African governments have been reluctant to criticize Mugabe, given his background as the hero who led the successful revolt against the former white rule.

For their part, European governments and the United States have been openly critical of the authorities in Zimbabwe, but they have not been able to find a way to bring about any changes in Mugabe's policy. Zimbabwe's long ordeal might linger for a while.

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Keywords

Zimbabwe, Government, Human, Rights, Elections, Ncube, Bishop, Africa

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