Zimbabwe soldiers in countrywide protests over poor pay

Wednesday January 21 2009

A boy carries a tin of cooking oil from a food

A boy carries a tin of cooking oil from a food aid distribution centre in Chirumanzi, 250 km (155 miles) southeast of Harare, January 15, 2009. Soldiers in the country have resumed protests, furious at the refusal by President Robert Mugabe's government to pay them in foreign currency. Photo/REUTERS 

By KITSEPILE NYATHI, NATION Correspondent

HARARE, Wednesday

Zimbabwe's soldiers, furious at the refusal by President Robert Mugabe's government to pay them in foreign currency, have resumed spontaneous protests throughout the country, raising fears the rising anger will escalate into a mutiny.

Armed police have been patrolling the streets of Harare since last week as they keep an eye on soldiers who often move in groups and target Zimbabweans they suspect of holding huge sums of foreign currency.

The unrest comes at a time when scores of soldiers are being tried for their involvement in the unprecedented December riots that saw the members of the feared security forces looting shops and assaulting foreign currency dealers in Harare.

The government has reportedly been paying the top army brass in hard currency to cushion them against the country's ever-soaring inflation and this has fuelled discontent within the lower ranks of the armed forces.

Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor, Dr Gideon Gono became the first high profile victim of the marauding soldiers after they raided his farm and took away 175 chickens valued at US$787 at the weekend.

According to police records, six armed soldiers driving a Chinese made half tonne truck arrived at the central bank governor's farm on the outskirts of Harare and forced his workers to load all the chickens at gunpoint.

They told the workers they would not pay for the chickens because they had failed to get their salaries deposited in their banks following a directive by Dr Gono that limited cash withdrawals.

With the unofficial dollarisation of the economy, Zimbabwe's workers are now demanding payment in foreign currency.

But the cash strapped government is unwilling to pay its workers in hard currency because the economy is at virtual standstill.

"Mugabe has to act fast to pacify the soldiers or face a mutiny," said an army captain who requested anonymity. "The soldiers have been patient for long but the decision by government to pay their bosses in foreign currency has fuelled anger in the ranks and this is not healthy for a government that has relied so much on the army to stay in power."

The soldiers are said to be demanding a minimum of US$2 000 a month for the least paid soldier.

Zimbabwe has an estimated 25 000 member army but there are reports of widespread desertions as young soldiers continue to escape the country's dire economic situation.

"The situation in the barracks is desperate," said a junior soldier in Harare. "We are no longer given food rations and our salaries in local currency are not enough to buy groceries, pay rent and send our children to school.

"Yet our bosses are living pretty with allowances in hard currency and the farms that they were given by the government."

After the December unrest, the government blamed its opponents, accusing them of trying to incite the armed forced to revolt.

The soldiers, frustrated at not receiving their salaries because of serious cash shortages, went on a rampage in Harare and other cities attacking people they suspected of being foreign currency dealers.

Analysts said it was an indication that the 84 year-old Mr Mugabe could no longer bank on the army to insulate himself against the consequences of his failed economic policies.