Frustration high in Zimbabwe's Army, a Mugabe power base
Hundreds of soldiers looted in the capital, Harare, in the past week. Has President Robert Mugabe lost control?
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa; and Harare, Zimbabwe
With rampant inflation, high unemployment, and villagers forced to eat rats and wild fruits to survive, Zimbabweans have become quite accustomed to hard times. But this week, even Zimbabweans feel that things have taken a turn for the worse.Skip to next paragraph
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Starting Nov. 27 and continuing until Monday, Army soldiers rampaged through the capital, Harare, after hearing that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe would be unable to print enough currency to pay their daily wages. Hundreds of soldiers took their anger out on street vendors, looting the markets for food and other goods.
Combined with the Monday cutoff of public water supplies, for lack of chemicals to prevent the spread of rampant cholera, the regime of President Robert Mugabe appears to be imploding.
The looting by members of the armed forces is the beginning of an end to Mr. Mugabe's regime, says University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer John Makumbe. "It might look or sound small, but it is an indication of the dissatisfaction that is in the Army and the general public of Zimbabwe," he says.
Declaring the end game for a regime as tenacious as Mugabe's is, of course, a risky venture. Judging by most measures, Mugabe's government should have collapsed long ago – yet somehow it keeps going. But rebellion by well-trained, well-armed soldiers in the capital city is never a good sign, and with hopes of a political compromise between Mugabe and his opposition rival Morgan Tsvangirai diminishing, the possibility of a violent and uncontrollable uprising seems to be increasing by the day.
"As long as the security sector remains calm, things can keep rolling," says Judy Smith-Höhn, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, South Africa. "But once these guys get riled up, that's when things start escalating."
The rioting began last Thursday, when 100 hungry, angry soldiers assaulted foreign-currency dealers and small shops in Harare. The spark for their anger was an announcement by the Reserve Bank that depositors could only withdraw 500,000 Zimbabwe dollars per day, the equivalent of 25 cents in US currency, barely enough to buy a banana.
"That is when they went out onto the streets, snatching bags from members of the public, especially those suspected to be foreign currency dealers," says Abel Munacho, who deals in foreign currency in Harare. "They were demanding to know where people got huge amounts of cash from, yet they were failing to access the maximum cash withdrawal limit of $500,000."
By targeting popular clothing stores and food outlets in broad daylight, Zimbabwean Army soldiers were venting their anger toward the politically-connected members of the country's elite, who are able through expatriate relatives or foreign business investments to access foreign currency and survive the financial crisis untouched.
Yet, while such anger at Mugabe's cronies is widespread – and was a driving force in Mugabe's loss in the first round of the country's presidential elections this past spring – there was little sympathy for the Army rioters in Harare. Angry foreign currency dealers and members of the public were involved in running battles with the soldiers. Some soldiers also dispersed people who were queuing up at automated teller machines to withdraw money.