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Zimbabwe’s paper dreams

The Zimbabwean
18 August 2005

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A Zimbabwean correspondent, Harare – Locking us in

Harare – The Robert Mugabe regime plans to pass a constitutional amendment bill that would deny passports to Zimbabwean citizens. This amounts to a new assault on fundamental freedoms, allowing the authorities “unfettered discretion to clamp down on any person they would not wish to travel out of the country for any purposes whatsoever”, human rights lawyers say.

The most immediate likely victims are opposition members of parliament, trade unionists and activists. Tafadzwa Mugabe of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) noted that the bill of which the measure is part – which includes a proposal to set up a forty-member senate to increase Zanu-PF powers of patronage – would mean citizens will have no legal guarantees over their passports.

Zanu-PF legislators have been arguing for the confinement within the country of opposition leaders who are presently free to travel to several European countries, as well as the United States (which restricts 120 members of Zimbabwe’s ruling party from entering).

“Examples that spring to mind are MPs critical of a government policy who are invited to address international forums”, ZLHR wrote in a series of submissions to the authorities. “Another example could be activists who wish to travel to address regional or international meetings or conferences… (or) a labour representative travelling to participate at an International Labour Organisation Conference… the list is endless.”

The controversial bill (which will also legalise the confiscation of farmland) is the latest in a series of constitutional alterations made since independence in 1980 – each time giving Mugabe more powers and eroding people’s rights.

Patrick Chinamasa, the justice minister, said the passport move was “just another law to protect national interests”. “The restrictions on travel and movement are not new, as it is normal procedure for any suspects to be placed under such conditions,” he told IRIN. “There is no need to discuss anything about it until it goes through parliament.”

In addition to traditional grounds for restricting freedom of movement, such as interests of defence or public order, the bill includes references to the “national interest” and the “public interest or the economic interests of the state”. But Chinamasa refused to say what criteria would be used for determining whether an individual or group posed a threat to the “national interest”.

The increased, broad grounds for restricting freedom of movement amount to a catchall. Or as ZLHR says, they would allow the authorities “to clamp down on any person they would not wish to travel out of the country for any purposes whatsoever”.

A bill that includes constitutional changes requires a two-thirds majority in parliament (of which Mugabe is assured). Lawyers suggest that one of the proposal’s real aims is to reverse a recent ruling by Justice Adam that effectively bolsters the rights of entering and leaving the country.

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Zakeus Chibaya, Harare – Computers gather rust

Harare – Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF government, fearful that people may read uncensored information, is reneging on its promise to provide internet services to schools – only four months after doling out hundreds of computers countrywide during the March 2005 elections in their bid to woo voters.

President Robert Mugabe was at the forefront of distributing computers from the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) and China at his campaign rallies, and promising that they would soon be connected to the internet. The computers are now gathering rust as some of the schools receiving them lack even electricity, let alone other elements needed to operate them.

Mugabe, when addressing a campaign rally at Chekai, Masvingo, said his government wanted to take the same lead in bringing development to Africa through information technology as it had with land reform. The government is now afraid that if they install internet services in rural schools there will be an unrestricted information flow in its political strongholds.

Schools must now get permission from the ministry of education, sport and culture before installing computers, and have ordered not to make use of those “donated” by the president.

A woman from Chirimanzu says: "Mugabe used computer donations as a campaign tool because the land issue had fizzled out. He once again outwitted people, telling them he was bringing development. He really just wants power. Most NGOs in rural areas which have access to the internet are monitored by the Central Intelligence Organisation so that they do not distribute information from the internet."

The government is now establishing “rural information centres” from which to disseminate its own propaganda. But one education ministry official says: "The project will remain a pipedream because there is no way the government can promote information technology while closing down independent newspapers."

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Benedict Unendoro, Harare – Thoughts from a “fuquel”

Harare – I have been waiting for the past forty-eight hours in a “fuquel”. Don't reach for the dictionary yet – in Zimbabwe, the words “fuel” and “queue” are so closely interconnected that they have fused.

For two weeks or so, every petrol station across the country has been short of supplies. This is because of factors way beyond Zimbabwean citizens’ control: the crippling shortage of foreign exchange resulting from a sharp decline in export earnings, an international donor community suffering both fatigue and irritation, and the International Monetary Fund's withdrawal of funding to support the balance of payments.

The effects are felt across the national economy and in people’s daily lives. The National Oil Company, a state-owned monopoly, owes more than $80 million to foreign companies. Zimbabwe’s once-rich tobacco industry has collapsed, and the small amount that is still grown cannot get to market because the farmers have no petrol for their trucks.

The fuel deficit has grounded even Air Zimbabwe flights. More than 100,000 bus drivers and crews have been laid off because there is no diesel for their vehicles. Education is disintegrating because teachers either cannot get to school, or have joined the fuquel.

Each fuquel ranges from a handful of cars to hundreds. Some are five kilometres long. Most motorists will drive away from an empty filling station in search of a better prospect. But a few will remain – those cars with no engines. This bizarre concept is purely Zimbabwean – in any sizeable fuquel, at least ten of the “cars” are mere shells, in which only the petrol tanks are still intact.

These cars belong to the black marketeers, a patient and resourceful lot who can win great rewards. Their technique is to persist in pushing the car bodies along the queue until eventually the tanks are filled; they will then drain the tanks off into jerry cans, and rejoin the queue.

The black market requires a short course in mathematics, in which we Zimbabweans are experts by necessity (runaway inflation sees prices changing every day, sometimes every hour). The pump price of one litre of petrol is 10,000 Zimbabwean dollars, but on the black market it will fetch anything up to 70,000. So for a forty-litre tank, the traders pay 400,000 dollars but will earn as much as 2.8 million.

The fuquel brings rich and poor together. The flashy cars – Mercedes, Pajero 4x4s – belong to guys aged 28-40. They dress in the latest fashions, and carry several, continuously ringing mobile phones, which their owners have to juggle to answer. These men don't spend the night in the fuquel; instead, they hire street-kids to sleep in their cars and push the vehicles forward if the fuquel moves, while they enjoy the comfort of hotels and lodges.

The ordinary guys in the fuquels drive twenty-year-old Peugeots, Datsuns and Mazdas, but they have their own fun. They spend most of the waiting time in the pub drinking lager, maize beer or the cheaper spirits. The pubs close at 10.30 in the evening, but the men don't go home. They pick up prostitutes and take them back to the fuquel to “keep the cold away”.

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