Zimbabwe in crisis as Nkomo is laid to rest

  • @AlexDuvalsmith
THE GOVERNMENT of Zimbabwe used the burial yesterday of Vice-President Joshua Nkomo to deflect attention from the worst crisis facing the country since independence 19 years ago.

In a funeral address lasting an hour and a half at Heroes' Acre, outside Harare, President Robert Mugabe equated the need for national unity with solidarity in the face of outside foes whom he listed as Britain, the International Monetary Fund and "arrogant and conceited" whites.

Mr Nkomo, who died aged 82 last Thursday, was buried with full military honours alongside some 25,000 other freedom fighters at the national memorial. The colourful and mostly upbeat ceremony, including traditional, nationalist and religious singing, attracted about 10,000 people, many of whom travelled to Harare on special trains laid on from Mr Nkomo's home turf, Matabeleland.

He was buried on the fifth day of national mourning. Even though he died in Harare, his body was taken to lie in state in Bulawayo, Matabeleland, and returned to the capital on Sunday.

The ceremonial pomp, President Mugabe's latest xenophobic rant and the laying in state of the body in Zimbabwe's Western Province were all deliberate moves to defuse any tension from within the Ndebele population, Mr Nkomo's tribe.

The death of Mr Nkomo, who led the liberation struggle against the white- ruled Rhodesian regime, comes at a time when Zimbabwe's 12 million people face great hardships.

President Mugabe's virtual one-party state is facing widespread criticism for its continued and extensive backing of the Democratic Republic of Congo's war against rebels. Inflation is running at record levels and a food shortage is looming because of a price dispute with the country's main millers, who have shut down operations in protest.

Another crisis is brewing as 60,000 former liberation guerrillas have threatened to besiege Mr Mugabe's official residence on 14 July unless he approves new payments for them. This crisis dates back to August 1997 when the veterans - whose support is crucial to Mr Mugabe - were given unbudgeted gratuities of Zim $4.5bn (about pounds 76m). After that payment, the currency dropped in value by 75 per cent and the IMF withdrew from Zimbabwe.

Mr Nkomo's death has also given rise to fears that ethnic unity between his mostly Ndebele followers and President Mugabe's Zanu-PF, which is largely Shona, could be under threat. President Mugabe's ethnic group represents 80 per cent of the population. The Ndebele, who live mainly in Matabeleland, were the subject of brutal repression between 1982 and 1987 in which up to 20,000 people died.

The struggle in effect ended in 1987 when Mr Nkomo became Vice-President and his PF-Zapu party united with the ruling Zanu-PF. But the Ndebele have never received an apology or compensation for the atrocities. Yesterday President Mugabe went only as far as to say the deaths and suffering were "regrettable".