02 December 2008
By Sebastien Berger and Peta Thornycroft in Harare
Police shot at rioting soldiers on the streets of Harare on Monday as unpaid uniformed personnel sided with the country’s impoverished people for the first time in protest against Zimbabwe’s collapsing economy. Tensions boiled over when around 50 troops were denied money from banks, after queuing all day.
The soldiers, from Cranborne Barracks and wearing camouflage dress, staged an impromptu protest, shouting at the banks, and were joined by hundreds of civilians at the corner of Robert Mugabe and Fourth Streets, in the heart of the capital.
When heavily armed riot police, in full combat dress, arrived to break up the demonstration, violence broke out — and the soldiers fought back. “The pot is now boiling,” said an eyewitness. ”We have never seen anything like this before, soldiers and ordinary people standing side by side and fighting the police.”
As a wounded soldier was being loaded in a police lorry, two generals from defence headquarters, near Robert Mugabe’s official residence, arrived, and their presence appeared to intimidate the rioters, who began to disperse.
But the clash — which came after several soldiers were arrested last week following an attack on money changers — is a graphic illustration of the risk the dysfunctional economy poses to the regime. If Mr Mugabe is unable to maintain loyalty even within his own armed services, his position will come under serious threat.
As the country’s economic crisis spiralled out of control, a government decision to cut the water supply to large swathes of Harare threatened to spread the cholera epidemic.
The official newspaper claimed that the water was cut off because of a shortage of an essential chemical used during the purification process, but the move raised concerns that it would spread the deadly epidemic that has seen more than 11,000 cases nationwide. As the water was shut off, families were forced into the streets, carrying containers and searching for water from wells or cisterns.
The worsening situation has seen Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF make key concessions in its negotiations over a constitutional amendment with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
According to a copy of the text agreed by negotiators and seen by the Telegraph, it contains a definition of the phrase “in consultation”, which appears several times in the power-sharing agreement between the parties, that will give the Prime Minister-designate Morgan Tsvangirai a veto over key government decisions, including the appointment of senior personnel, among them the country’s service chiefs.
“These provisions and the definitions attached to them make a dramatic reduction in Mugabe’s power,” said David Coltart, a lawyer and senator for the MDC faction led by Arthur Mutambara. “It’s a huge change. It gives Morgan substantial power and certainly sufficient power to go ahead with this agreement.
“What’s driving all of this now is just complete economic collapse and the growing humanitarian crisis which Zanu realise they have no answer to. There’s an air of desperation now.”