Parliament dissolved as 'creeping coup' looms

Mugabe accused of strengthening his power base by appointing top army officers to key posts as date for elections remains elusive

Zimbabwe's parliament was dissolved yesterday with no date given for the delayed parliamentary elections, as constitutional experts warned that the country was in the throes of a creeping coup.

Pointing to the growing number of military top brass who have taken over leading civil service jobs - such as the control of prisons, the police, the intelligence services, the national oil company and even the parks board - they argued that whether or not elections take place, the ruling party is consolidating its influence.

Brian Kagoro, a constitutional expert, drew a comparison with Nigeria's worst dictator, the late General Sani Abacha. He said: "There are early signs of militarisation, orchestrated by the government, just as when Abacha took power. The use of crude force that we have seen lately is also new to Zimbabwe."

Another analyst, Brian Raftopoulos, at the University of Zimbabwe, said: "There is a professional fibre in the armed forces which means they are unlikely to take power in a violent coup. Civic activity is now so strong that the military would encounter enormous opposition. However, it is quite clear that President Robert Mugabe's real strength is the coercion which comes out of the army and the liberation war veterans. He is using it to the full and the militarisation will be to his benefit even if the opposition does well in any elections which might take place.

"Mugabe, who is very shrewd, can see that Britain is now stepping back. He knows that if he holds an election which is even slightly free and fair, the international community will accept it and come back. They want to do business here," said Mr Raftopoulos.

Despite pledging at the EUAfrica meeting in Cairo that he would hold elections in May, President Mugabe has made no such announcement to his own people. Instead, he has said that constituency boundaries have yet to be set. Experts believe this will take three months. Constitutionally, he has up to four months to hold elections after parliament's dissolution.

Amid occupations of some 500 commercial farms, orchestrated by the ruling party, and an economic crisis deepening by the day, a climate of confusion has been installed which is to the benefit of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF). In the 20 years since the end of white rule, April always provided certainties - it was election month and the time at which the tobacco auctions, which yield about $300m in hard currency, were held. This year, nothing is certain.

Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has pledged, if elected, to pull Zimbabwe's estimated 11,000 troops out of the Democratic Republic of Congo where they are supporting President Laurent Kabila.

But there is considerable evidence that in the 20 months they have been in the Congo, senior Zimbabwean officers have set up lucrative businesses there, dealing in diamonds and cobalt. At home, as part of a high-profile pre-election purge of corruption, President Mugabe has, over the past few months, appointed top military officers to jobs once held by civilians.Brigadier Happyton Bonyongwe heads the intelligence services. Four out of five regional police forces are headed by top military, the force's national commissioner is a soldier, as are the directors of national parks, the Noczim oil company and the prison service.

Mr Raftopoulos said: "The ruling party and the hierarchy have looted the country for 20 years. They fear that any new government will look into their dealings and into the massacres which took place in Matabeland in the 1980s. The air force chief, Perence Shiri, was in a key position at the time. He does not want to be investigated.''

Colonel Chancellor Diye, the defence forces spokesman, yesterday insisted that "coups d'etat are taboo" and "the oath of allegiance is to the state". The quality of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) was confirmed by the British team that trains southern African peace-keepers, in Harare. They said many Zimbabwean officers were Sandhurst-trained and that Britain had been sending instructors for 20 years.

But, said one, the ZDF are trained, like all modern armies, to respect civilian democratic governments. "Mugabe is, as things stand, democratically-elected, so they would not be doing anything wrong in obeying his orders," he said.