Zimbabwe marks 20 years of freedom in silence

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The Independent Online

Jacob Chikuhwa, who once dedicated his life to ensuring President Robert Mugabe's fortunes would rise and rise, turns to a pile of graphics to prove why, 20 years to the day since majority rule began, they have plummeted as spectacularly as the bars on his charts.

"Look," he says. "The Zimbabwe dollar, stronger than the US dollar in 1980. In 20 years it has dropped 3,690 per cent. Unbelievable! The price of a loaf of bread - 45 cents in 1980. In January 2000, Z$16.50 (30p) - a 338 per cent increase. Incredible!"

More expletives fly when the 59-year-old economist gets to his government deficit bar chart. "Do you know no audited government books exist for 1997, '98 and '99? How can they control the economy when they are not even having their own books audited?"

Mr Chikuhwa has had enough of the ruling, formerly Marxist, Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), born out of the liberation movement which sent him to university in the Soviet Union. In December, after returning from self-imposed exile in Sweden, he joined the new and market-friendly Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Today, Zimbabwe will not be celebrating the 20th anniversary of independence day 18 April 1980. Every year on this day since the end of white rule, President Mugabe has filled the national sports stadium with a cheering crowd, marched his police and army triumphally through the streets of Harare and invited all to wonder at the air force fly-past above.

This year, celebrations have been cancelled, ostensibly so the money can be spent on victims of Cyclone Eline. There may not even be a wreath-laying ceremony at the vast Heroes' Acre, the North Korean-designed monument west of the capital dedicated to victims of the liberation struggle and great political figures.

Instead, the opposition will dominate proceedings, quietly. The MDC has called on all Zimbabweans to stage 24-hour church vigils, to pray for the victims of recent political violence and for peaceful elections.

Mr Chikuhwa will take the call seriously. "I am a twin, the second-born," said the economist who is the MDC's international relations co-ordinator. "We are often sacrificed at birth according to Shona tradition. But my parents were strong Anglicans and they saved my life."

Apart from Christianity, the fortunes of his country which have dictated Mr Chikuhwa's life. Politically active since his teens, he spent less than a year as a postmaster trainee before being jailed in 1964 for owning a copy of Let My People Go by the Nobel-prize winning Albert Luthuli. He was tortured.

Blacklisted by the Rhodesian government, he crossed to Zambia in 1966 and was given a scholarship for the Soviet Union. He continued his exile in Sweden where he stayed until the end of Rhodesian white rule in 1980, operating as a publicity officer for Zanu.

"At first, independence brought great strides - clinics, schools, roads, all of them well-built. But it did not take long after I returned to my country to realise things were not going right. I was taken on as an economist by the posts and telecommunications company where I produced the first abstract of statistics."

Bar charts were his downfall. "At first people were impressed but then they realised I was ambitious. It was too much for some people and I discovered political appointees were getting all the good jobs. I switched to the Zimbabwe Football Association as director of finance. There, I exposed a corruption scam and the state newspaper described me as 'the KGB of Zimbabwe'. Around this time, in 1989, that I joined a brain drain of disillusioned professionals. I went back to Sweden."

He shares the view of many Zanu-PF dissidents, that the rot set in firmly with the 1988 Willowgate scandal in which prominent ministers queue-jumped for cars from a plant called Willowvale to resell them at huge profits. At the time, an ordinary citizen had to wait five years to buy a car at the official price.

"I realised in the 1990s we had been tricked. The reconciliation policy so welcomed in 1980 was a camouflage to bring everyone together to create a one-party state. The atrocities in Matabeleland [in which up to 15,000 people are said to have died] were an intimidation tactic to bring the Ndebeles under Shona influence.

"Politician after politician has been implicated in corruption. In a democracy, if you have the slightest conviction or corruption record you cannot stay in politics. Zanu has ruled this country on fear and they are repeating the slogan that if you don't vote for them, we'll have to go back to the bush. It's a powerful slogan given the painful memories of the past."

But Mr Chikuhwa believes the MDC can change everything. "You just need to look at the state of the place. When I left, the street lights were bright and the roads good. Now there are potholes and darkness. I go to my home town, Mutare, and it is still like a pre-independence colonial town with no infrastructure.

"My hope is that the people are fed up with 20 years of Zanu-PF not doing anything," added Mr Chikuhwa, gesturing at the plunging bar charts that cover even the price of a bar of soap - 491 per cent more expensive than in 1980. "Unbelievable," he sighs.