Mugabe clings to power through election calamity, cholera

Zimbabwe is short on laughs these days, so short, in fact, that the capital Harare, the epicentre of a cholera outbreak that has felled over 1,000 Zimbabweans, is dubbed Ha-Ha-Rare, dpa reported.

But the sound of mirthless laughter did ring out over the city lately, when Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, by way of explanation for the cholera epidemic, told journalists that Britain had planted the cholera germ in Zimbabwe's soil before quitting the country in 1980.

The outbreak of the water-borne disease that began in August when water and sanitation systems in townships creaked to a halt, was the culmination of a 28-year "gestation" period, he claimed.

The remarks, following on President Robert Mugabe's declaration a few days earlier that there was "no cholera" in Zimbabwe, marked new lows of defiance and paranoia in a country on the brink of becoming a failed state.

The defiance began in earnest in March. When it became clear Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change had defeat Mugabe in parliamentary elections, the state-controlled electoral commission refused to release the results, citing the need for "verification."

When the presidential results were finally released after over a month, they showed Tsvangirai falling just below the 50 per-cent- plus-one vote needed to defeat Mugabe outright.

Mugabe ran solo into the run-off election in June that Tsvangirai boycotted after dozens of his supporters were murdered by pro-Mugabe militia and state forces.

After being declared the "landslide" winner, Mugabe was sworn in as president for another five years. But, unlike previous, flawed elections in Zimbabwe, there was no African rubberstamp this time.

The election was not a reflection of the will of the people, African election observer teams said, thrusting the matter onto the agenda of a reluctant African Union.

The AU proposed a government of national unity modelled on the arrangement that had ended bloodletting in Kenya earlier in the year.

When Mugabe acquiesced, and signed an historic power-sharing agreement on September 15, Zimbabwe's dark decade of repression and economic decline looked, finally, to be nearing an end.

But his speech that day gave an inkling of worse was to come. Slumped over the podium, a rambling, defiant Mugabe warned the new government would only last as long as Zimbabwe's sovereignty was protected.

More than three months later the government conceived that day has yet to see the light of day.

Despite the party losing the March elections, Mugabe's Zanu-PF is insisting on retaining all the most important ministries, bar finance. With inflation running at over 231 million per cent, and goods now being priced in quintillions of dollars (18 zeroes), it was happy to offload that dossier.

The MDC, for its part, has gone cold on the prospect of sharing power with a regime that is demanding joint control of the police, while continuing arbitrarily to detain and disappear its members.

Then along came the cholera outbreak, bringing more despair in a country where people are starting to die of hunger, largely because of government disregard, and prompting a new round of calls internationally for Mugabe to resign.

Backed by South Africa, the regional powerbroker, and the African Union, which have both ruled out military intervention in Zimbabwe, Mugabe has defied those calls.

The only serious threat to his 28-year rule now appears now come from within his own establishment.

Scores of junior soldiers ran amok through the streets of Harare on December 1 in frustration at not being able to access their salaries because of cash shortages.

While the regime appears to have put the genie back in the bottle for now by promising the soldiers pay rises, at the current rate of inflation - over 231 million per cent - it won't be long before the young wolves are expected to be howling at the door once more.

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