PARAMILITARY UNITS armed with batons, riot shields, and tear gas patrolled main roads in Zimbabwe's capital last weekend as police warned they would not tolerate protests against their crackdown on street trading--the only livelihood for thousands of poor township dwellers.
The police, under direct orders from Didymus Mutasa, the head of the secret police (Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organization), have brutally removed any competition to Chinese traders whose shops have sprung up around the capital over the past few years. Mutasa said law and order had to be preserved and Harare's Police Chief, Superintendent Oliver Mandipaka, said 9,653 people were arrested in the five-day blitz on street vendors, flea market stalls, and other informal businesses.
This crackdown appears to be part of an orchestrated pro-China initiative. Mutasa, who is now overseeing the distribution of land to the Chinese, would not comment on charges that the Mugabe regime is giving tobacco farming land to the Chinese in exchange for war planes and other arms. What is certain is that the Zimbabwean government is buying these arms and the only imminent threat to Mugabe is his own people.
Police Chief Mandipaka said people were preparing to demonstrate but that police were ready and commuter minibuses (the main form of transport across Zimbabwe) were prevented from entering the city center. As Zimbabweans fight off hunger and oppression, some have had the courage to fight back. Angry demonstrators clashed with police over the weekend in the most serious unrest since President Robert Mugabe's ruling Zanu PF party stole a landslide victory in the March 31 parliamentary general election.
But the violence by demonstrators may backfire, according to Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. He recognizes classic Mugabe tactics and is accusing the 81-year-old tyrant of provoking conditions for declaring a state of emergency, which would give him unlimited powers of detention, seizure, and censorship. Tsvangirai also accused Mugabe of ordering the crackdown in response to pressure from newly-arrived Chinese businessmen to stop secondhand dealers undercutting their cheap imports. "The country has been mortgaged to the Chinese," Tsvangirai said in a statement. "How can we violently remove Zimbabweans from our flea markets to make way for the Chinese? The majority of Zimbabweans depend on informal trade to feed, clothe, and educate their families."
Since western countries imposed sanctions on the Mugabe regime three years ago for failing to uphold democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, the Zimbabwean leader has responded by looking East. Mugabe himself vigorously courted Chinese businessmen to invest in Zimbabwe, who in the last three years have descended on Harare and the country's other major cities, setting up shop at every street corner to sell cheap clothing and electronic goods.
But Zimbabweans have responded with cut-throat competition and informal trading. Police Chief Mandipaka said operators of informal businesses had been fined for operating without city council licenses or for possessing scarce staple items such as maize meal, sugar, and gasoline intended for resale on the black market. "Police will leave no stone unturned in their endeavor to flush out economic saboteurs," said Mandipaka.
One local academic joked that Mugabe had "yellow fever" since he can only see allies in Asia, which he knows will not criticize his oppressive policies. But the academic also raised a more serious point: Mugabe is throwing his own political cronies off tobacco growing land and oppressing street hawkers in towns to make way for the Chinese; and he is selling out his country to the Chinese in order to cling to power. So far, the West has done nothing to stem the tide of human rights abuse in Zimbabwe and has steadfastly refused to push for a UN resolution or any military solution. But what of Chinese influence in a destabilized region, is that a possible national security threat? Perhaps it's time the State Department took another look at Zimbabwe's new colonialists.
Roger Bate is a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.