ZHAMPALI, ZIMBABWE — The soldiers rolled past Lot Dube's land, and set up camp nearby. They stopped just long enough to give him a blunt message: Your fields are ours.
"They told us, 'We are taking away your fields from you'," says Mr. Dube, who farms a 10-acre plot south of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second biggest city. The soldiers, who arrived last November, proceeded to plow under his tomatoes, onions, and sweet potatoes. Since 1982, these were the crops Dube had grown to pay for his children's food and school fees. Now, for the good of the nation, he was ordered to plant maize.
The Mugabe regime is looking for ways to ease a food and economic crisis so severe that inflation is running at more than 1,000 percent. But as pressure builds on the president to step down, Robert Mugabe is instead strengthening his grip.
He has ordered Zimbabwe's military to fan out across several rural areas to ensure that the government's grain silos are full.
That move has been mirrored in the cities by the appointment of military commanders to top slots at the Reserve Bank, the Electoral Commission, Zimbabwe Railroads, the Ministry of Energy, the Public Service Commission, the National Parks, and other key institutions.
Political opposition groups are largely neutralized by Mugabe's extensive domestic intelligence network. But experts say that without a viable political alternative, anger over rising prices, shortages of basic goods and services, and abuses by government officials could fuel serious unrest.
"[Militarization] is an admission that things have fallen apart and national governance can no longer continue in a civilian mode," says Jonathan Moyo, a former secretary for information and currently Zimbabwe's only independent member of parliament. Mr. Moyo warns of a possible "slide into anarchy" if social unrest erupts into violence.
Zimbabwe's economy has been shrinking for the past six years and has been dependent on food aid since 2002. Eighty percent of Zimbabweans are unemployed, and food and fuel are scarcer than ever. Last month, the UN distributed emergency food aid to about one-fourth of the 12.5 million population, and said many people were surviving on one meal or less a day. This year, despite the best rains in 20 years, the government predicts the grain harvest of a country that was known as the breadbasket of southern Africa will be only half as large as in 2000, when the eviction of white commercial farmers began.
But putting agricultural decisions in the hands of the military is troubling to locals. "They don't know anything about farming," says Dube. "They say they want to end hunger in Zimbabwe. But I think they want to take the fields for their own use."
Ephraim Masawi, Zimbabwe's deputy secretary for information, says that reports of soldiers destroying farmers' vegetables has "never come to my ears." He adds: "These people have invited the army to try to help them because some have no collateral to go to the bank for loans."
The presence of the military, predominantly in the southern part of the country, and not in the north where Mugabe draws his support, is no coincidence. "The army has targeted areas that are potential opposition strongholds, those farmers that have voted for the opposition," says Gordon Moyo, leader of an opposition political group, Bulawayo Agenda. "It's an act of intimidation and a violation of human rights of those people."
For some southern farmers, the military presence is reminiscent of the mid-1980s, when human rights groups say that a unit of the Zimbabwean Army massacred up to 20,000 Ndebele, the predominant ethnic group in the southern region, crushing support for an alternative to Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party.
"The militarization of the state of government is viewed by Mugabe as a passport to a post-State House security," in which he will be immune from prosecution, says David Coltart, a white member of parliament with the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). "Mugabe hopes that after he leaves the State House [the presidential residence] he will not be pursued by the law and not dragged to Senegal or the Netherlands for crimes against humanity."
Earlier this month, the pro-government Herald newspaper announced a possible constitutional amendment for Mugabe to remain in power until 2010, two years past the next scheduled presidential election.
None of this is helping the economy, critics say. "The economy will only turn around when you get competent and experienced people running it, not the military," says Mr. Coltart. "The appointment of mili-tary people to run things like the railroads will only speed up the demise of the regime."
Many officials in prominent positions are accused of pillaging from the institutions they oversee and profiting from corruption rackets.
"It is robber baron stuff of the highest order," says John Robertson, an independent economist in the capital, Harare. "It's a pirate ship with Robert Mugabe as the captain. It's an exciting, profitable ride while it lasts, but inflation is the consequence."
Tourist destinations such as Victoria Falls are almost empty, even as neighboring Zambia experiences a tourism boom. Thanks to inflation, a cup of tea that as recently as last year cost 12,000 Zimbabwean dollars now costs a quarter million. Supermarket shelves are stocked full of goods too expensive to purchase.
The poverty line, the minimum amount an average family of six needs for a month's worth of food is 41 million Zimbabwean dollars (US$405), but the average Zimbabwean worker earns 14 million dollars a month.
On a recent Thursday in Harare, ABC Auctions was selling off every wine glass, fixture, table and chair of the Acropolis Taverna, a restaurant that had been in business over 30 years. Altogether the store went for 4.2 billion Zimbabwean dollars, or about US$21,000, at the black market exchange rate - twice the official rate. "Now, when most people go out of business they simply sell their goods immediately," says ABC Auctions' supervisor Jo Zwoushe.
As the economic crisis has deepened, the government has responded by printing more paper money.
But the increased printing of money is only likely to spur even greater inflation. The official opposition has thus far been relatively ineffective, however. After years of repression, the MDC is split. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai is threatening to take his opposition to the streets, but may struggle to muster enough supporters.
Back in the southern fields, farmers interviewed say that soldiers have beaten local residents - women as well as men - who have not obeyed the planting orders. They can be seen guarding roads and footpaths throughout the irrigation schemes and driving tractors.
Dube's neighbor Gabrial Nkala who has been farming on the same plot since 1980, says: "We need agriculture experts, not soldiers, but it seems they are here for a very long time."