Squads of police armed with batons, riot shields, and tear gas have rounded up thousands of street traders, traffic violators, foreign-currency dealers, and other urban residents across the southern African nation of Zimbabwe in recent days.
Nearly 10,000 people have been arrested as part of a dragnet called "Operation Restore Order." The moves come eight weeks after President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party won a solid majority in elections that critics say were flawed. Now that Mr. Mugabe has total control of Zimbabwe's political scene, he may be trying to gain complete control over the country's foundering economy, observers say - while also preventing postelection discontent from morphing into full-scale street protests.
As a former revolutionary himself, Mugabe knows "the climate is ripe for another revolution," says Peter Kagwanja of the International Crisis Group in Pretoria, South Africa. So he has embarked on a "campaign of containment" that aims to solidify his position of power - and preempt any full-blown dissent. By acting now he can prevent any Tiananmen Square-type protests.
So police have raided flea markets, demolished temporary buildings housing small convenience stores, and set up roadblocks throughout the city. With the formal economy in a tailspin, many people had taken up street vending - selling cellphone recharge cards or loaves of bread - to subsist. And now they're being targeted, with critics noting that urban residents are also supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
So in the once-prosperous capital city of Harare, with its wide boulevards, giant shade trees, and blocks of 15- and 20-story office buildings, people wait in long lines for bread, milk, and other essentials. The price of bread has reportedly doubled in the past two months. ATMs have largely run out of cash, and there are long lines at the few machines still working. Once a major food exporter, Zimbabwe now has several million people on the verge of starvation - and has to import corn and other food from the region."
"It's an inhuman exercise that's been carried out," says Methodist Bishop Levee Kadenge, a Harare resident. He and others suspect owners of bigger businesses may be pushing the crackdown.
In Zimbabwe, as in many developing countries, owners of formal businesses often complain that black marketeers don't pay taxes or rent and aren't regulated. Also, in Zimbabwe bigger-business owners are key to the regime's stability and increasing numbers of them are Chinese, thanks to Mr. Mugabe's "Look East" policy.
Harare's police spokesman Oliver Mandipaka said the arrested street traders had been operating without licenses - or had been found in possession of scarce goods like corn meal, sugar, and gasoline, which they intended to sell on the black market.
"Police will leave no stone unturned in their endeavor to flush out economic saboteurs," he said.
But these small traders are increasingly the mainstay of the nation's economy. A 2002 study funded by the World Bank found that Zimbabwe's informal sector, or black market, constituted 59.4 percent of the overall economy. That's far above the 41 percent average for developing nations.
The informal sector is the most-thriving part of Zimbabwe's economy, and now Mugabe's government appears to be trying to get control of it.
"It's the only remaining sector with foreign currency," Mr. Kagwanja explains. And the government needs that currency to import oil, electricity, and other necessities.
• Wire services were used in this report.