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  • Christine Chumbler
    Ghost story angers Malawi leader Malawi s President Bingu wa Mutharika has angrily denied reports that he has moved out of his 300-room official residence
    Message 1 of 1046 , Mar 14, 2005
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      Ghost story angers Malawi leader

      Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika has angrily denied reports that
      he has moved out of his 300-room official residence because it is
      haunted.
      "I have never feared ghosts in my life," he told journalists on his
      return from a trip to Belgium.

      His advisor on Christian affairs has also back-tracked on the story.

      Reverend Malani Mtonga has denied telling several journalists that
      Christian priests had been called to exorcise the "evil spirits".

      Earlier, another aide who did not want to be named, had told the BBC's
      Raphael Tenthani: "Sometimes the president feels rodents crawling all
      over his body but when lights are turned on he sees nothing."

      Controversy has raged over the costly palace which housed parliament
      until Mr Mutharika's election last year.

      'Obscene opulence'

      Critics have accused him of going back on election promises to trim
      government spending in the impoverished state.

      MPs are having to rent a venue for when parliament reconvenes at the
      end of March, after a gap of six months.

      At one stage, it appeared they might have to meet in a sports stadium
      and parliamentary committees have met in a motel.

      The president justified his decision to evict parliament by arguing
      that the New State House had originally been built as a presidential
      residence.

      Kamuzu Banda, Malawi's founding president, spent only 90 days in the
      palace which took 20 years to build and cost $100m.

      With its 300 air-conditioned rooms, it is set in 555 hectares (1,332
      acres) of land outside the capital.

      When Bakili Muluzi, Mr Mutharika's predecessor, came to power in 1994
      he refused to live there, condemning its "obscene opulence".

      Instead, he used the Sanjika Palace in Malawi's commercial capital,
      Blantyre.

      *****

      Malawi: IMF Says Country's Economy Improving

      UN Integrated Regional Information Networks

      March 3, 2005
      Posted to the web March 3, 2005

      Lilongwe

      An International Monetary Fund (IMF) team has lauded Malawi for its
      control on public spending and tackling corruption and said that its
      economy was turning around.

      "There are now signs that the economy is improving - the domestic debt
      situation has eased and credit to the private sector has begun to
      expand. We now expect growth to rise to just under five percent in 2005,
      in part because of a strong expansion in private sector activity," said
      John Green, an advisor in the IMF's Africa department and leader of the
      team on Thursday.


      A five-member IMF team was in Malawi to review the country's progress
      on tightening fiscal discipline, and assess the new government's
      performance in terms of macroeconomic reform.

      The IMF suspended aid to Malawi during the tenure of the previous
      president, Bakili Muluzi, because of alleged corruption, poor governance
      and over-expenditure.

      Last year, Malawi requested the IMF to put it on a staff-monitored
      programme, which aims to address macro-economic imbalances by containing
      government borrowing and holding down inflation.

      Government spokesman Ken Lipenga noted that domestic borrowing had been
      contained at about US $4.4 million, against the projected amount of $5
      million by December 2004, and the inflation rate stood at 12 percent
      between July and December against an IMF projection of 18 percent.

      An estimated 65 percent of the country's 12 million people live below
      the poverty line. President Bingu wa Mutharika has indicated that an
      economic growth rate of around six percent or more is required to
      alleviate poverty. But since taking office last year, the new government
      has managed a growth of 4.3 percent.

      The IMF team also expressed concerns over Malawi's food security
      situation after it noted that the country had experienced a dry spell
      during a critical stage of the maize growing season.

      "There are uncertainties related to the impact of recent dry spell on
      agricultural output and on the budget. The government and donors are
      working together to develop an appropriate food security policy," Green
      said.

      *****

      Fuel Taxes Hit the Poor Hard

      AfricaWoman.Net (Nairobi)

      ANALYSIS
      July 1, 2004
      Posted to the web March 4, 2005

      Elizabeth Lisuntha-Banda


      Paying taxes may have become a way of life for those in business and
      employment, but Malawians are reeling under a burden heavier than most:
      workers can expect to surrender part of their income in the form of Pay
      As You Earn at the end of every month.

      If they go to a shop, they will probably pay extra tax on almost 80
      percent of their needs. Yet more taxes are factored into their
      electricity bills. But that is not all. Whether or not they own
      vehicles, they must also contribute to levies incorporated in the fuel
      price build-up.


      Certainly, fuel drives world economies. You need not be a student of
      economics to realise that when pump prices go up, the prices of all
      other commodities - and transport - will rise too. But the opposite is
      true when pump prices drop. Nothing ever follows suit.

      Recent erratic oil prices have made life particularly difficult for
      poor Malawians. A survey conducted by the Malawi National Statistical
      Office indicates that 65 percent of the people do not have enough of an
      income to meet their requirements of food and other basic necessities.

      Indeed, the United Nations Development Programme's 2003 Economic Report
      says Malawi is poorer now than it was a decade ago. And a survey
      conducted in six townships in Blantyre, the commercial capital, in
      January this year revealed that 54 in every 100 of the city's residents
      are running businesses, even when they have jobs. The majority of
      Malawians live on less than US$1 a day.

      Women, who comprise 52 percent of the population, have been affected
      most as they are the ones who run their homes. "Life is tough," says
      Sarah Chagwera of Ndirande township. "It is not easy to make ends meet
      with the increase in prices of almost all basic commodities. It is
      really difficult to ensure there is food on the table every day."

      Chipo Salijeni of Chilomoni township, a mother of six, says she is
      having difficulties paying fares for her school-going children. "I am a
      widow who looks after six children in primary and secondary school. I
      have to provide transport and pocket money for the children, yet I run
      only a small business. Where do I get the money to buy food, which is
      now so expensive?"

      Being landlocked, Malawi has to pay a higher premium on oil because it
      has to be transported from sea ports by road and, to some extent, the
      rail.

      But transport costs from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Durban in South
      Africa and Nacala in Mozambique are not in themselves the key factor in
      high fuel prices and, therefore, higher cost of living.

      Levies on the pump prices are the major factor, according to the
      Economics Association of Malawi. A study conducted recently under the
      auspices of the association recommended that the so-called "safety net
      levies" be removed as they have become a burden on the people.
      "Government should consider removing some safety net levies since the
      current levies are generating more taxes than budgeted for in the
      2003/04 national budget," the report proposed.

      Levies proposed for removal include Safety Net Levy 2 was introduced on
      October 18, 2003, as a temporary measure "imposed by a ministerial
      decree without the approval of the National Assembly" and Safety Net
      Levy 3, the US95 cents per litre petrol and diesel which is hidden in
      the road levy but not remitted to the National Road Levy. The Road Levy
      for 2003/04 financial year, says the association, had already raised
      about US$9,200 through the end of January 2004 while the target is just
      over $10,000. "Once that target is reached, it will be advisable to
      either reduce the rate or maintain it but ensure that extra resources
      are properly accounted for and used for intended purposes."

      Lack of transparency in government over the use of the funds raised has
      emerged as the major concern for the stakeholders in the study, who also
      include the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry,
      Society of Accountants in Malawi, Malawi Economic Justice Network and
      Civil Society Agriculture Network.

      The confusion is heightened by recent shifting of goalposts by the
      government, which has seen the ministry of finance take centre stage in
      discussions on regulating fuel prices over the ministry of energy and
      mining. Petroleum Pricing Committee Chairman Chancellor Kaferapanjira,
      who is also chief executive of the chambers of commerce and industry,
      says pump prices and the cost of living could be lower if government
      agreed to drop the levies.

      Other levies in the petroleum price build-up include the Petroleum
      Control Commission levy of 0.35 cents and price stabilisation levy of 77
      cents per litre, the Malawi Bureau of Standards access levy of 0.35
      cents and price stabilisation levy of about two cents per litre. "It's
      not funny at all," says Kaferapanjira. "Life will be difficult."

      Since fuel drives the economy, he adds, unnecessary increases trigger
      price hikes and higher inflation. Since February this year, according to
      the Consumers Association of Malawi market guide, the price of maize
      flour has risen by 12 percent, table salt six percent, bread flour 6.9
      percent, ration meat by 15.67 percent and eggs by 13.46 percent.

      Former Finance Minister Friday Jumbe dashed all hopes of lower prices,
      however, insisting that the levies on fuel were here to stay. He said he
      too "wished all levies were removed from fuel prices" but that this
      would be possible only if he were given alternative sources of revenue
      for budgeted programmes.

      But economics association spokesman Perks Ligoya says the minister
      missed the point: the issue is not an alternative source of revenue but
      where the money goes and how it is used. Donors have echoed the
      association's concerns over lack of transparency in the management of
      road levy funds. They threatened to pull out of the sector because
      government is diverting funds from the National Road Authority to
      finance activities outside the road maintenance programme.

      Despite the road maintenance levies, major roads are still riddled with
      potholes and over half of city roads have no tarmac. Safety net levies
      are also still being charged on fuel prices, but Malawi continues to
      rely on donors for emergency assistance.

      Former Energy and Mining Minister Hetherwick Ntaba, announcing the
      introduction of unleaded petrol soon, said the country would save
      $400,000, which could result in lower pump prices over time. But this is
      unlikely because a new Energy Sector Regulatory Bill is expected to
      introduce extra levies on fuel, electricity and gas.

      Reacting to the new levies, Malawi Economic Justice Network National
      Coordinator Collins Magalasi says that, though he supports rural
      electrification, he expects the government to remove other levies,
      especially those on fuel. "If they want to add the rural electrification
      levy then, surely, they will have to remove the other safety net
      levies," he argues. "If they don't, then it will be killing Malawians in
      broad daylight."


      *****

      Zim court scraps Daily News ban

      Harare, Zimbabwe



      14 March 2005 12:59

      advertisementZimbabwe's Supreme Court on Monday quashed a ban on the
      independent Daily News newspaper, known for its anti-government line,
      but upheld a controversial media law that has forced three other
      newspapers to close down.

      Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku said the government-controlled Media
      and Information Commission (MIC) had erred in ordering the paper to stop
      publishing.

      "The determination of the media commission denying the applicant the
      licence to operate as a mass media organisation is set aside," he ruled
      before advising the newspaper to submit a new licence application to the
      commission.

      The Daily News and its sister paper, The Daily News on Sunday, were
      forcibly closed in September 2003 under Zimbabwe's stringent media laws,
      which require all news organisations to obtain a licence from the
      commission.

      But the court refused to strike down sections of Zimbabwe's tough media
      laws as demanded by The Daily News's publishers, Associated Newspapers
      of Zimbabwe (ANZ).

      The chief justice added that the application to declare several
      sections of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act null
      and void "is dismissed".

      ANZ CEO Samuel Sipepa Nkomo said he was "disappointed" by the ruling
      but declined to comment further.

      The paper's former legal secretary, Gugulethu Moyo, who handled the
      months-long legal battles, slammed the court's decision and accused the
      judiciary of colluding with President Robert Mugabe to stifle press
      freedom.

      "As wicked as Mugabe's media laws are, they are not self-executing,
      they require judges that are complicit with the government in stripping
      the people of their basic human rights," said Moyo in a telephone
      interview from London.

      In March, Daily News editors went before the Supreme Court to argue
      that sections of the media law, which has been condemned by rights
      groups in Zimbabwe and abroad, are in violation of the Zimbabwean
      Constitution.

      It also argued that the MIC, which licenses journalists and their
      publications, is illegal, citing in particular the fact that some of its
      members were appointed by then information minister Jonathan Moyo, the
      architect of the media laws.

      The Daily News was launched in 1999, providing nearly a million readers
      with the only independent alternative to two state-run dailies -- The
      Herald and The Chronicle.

      It proved to be a thorn in the side of Mugabe's government, with its
      harshly critical editorial line.

      Mugabe in January signed into law an amendment toughening up the Access
      to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which can see unlicensed
      journalists jailed for up to two years.

      Under the new regulations, journalists who work without a government
      licence now face a two-year jail sentence or a fine, or both. The
      state-approved MIC has powers to accredit journalists.

      It also bars foreign journalists from working permanently in the
      Southern African country.

      Moyo, who was fired after falling out of favour with Mugabe, last year
      defended the amendments to "protect the state from attacks by enemies of
      the country", a reference to Western nations critical of Mugabe's
      government.

      The original law was passed in March 2002, just days after Mugabe's
      victory in controversial presidential polls, which were widely slammed
      as being marred by violence and fraud.

      Following its promulgation, four independent newspapers have been shut
      down and scores of journalists arrested, while others have fled the
      country for fear of arrest.

      Other than The Daily News and The Daily News on Sunday, the Weekly
      Tribune was shut down in June last year and the Weekly Times closed last
      month.

      Under Zimbabwean law, it is an offence to insult the president and it
      can attract a jail term.
    • Christine Chumbler
      ADB firm on Karonga-Chitipa road contract by Zainah Liwanda, 22 May 2006 - 06:09:17 The African Development Bank (ADB) has again rejected a proposal by
      Message 1046 of 1046 , May 22, 2006
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        ADB firm on Karonga-Chitipa road contract

        by Zainah Liwanda, 22 May 2006 - 06:09:17

        The African Development Bank (ADB) has again rejected a proposal by government to look for another contractor instead of China Hunan Construction to construct of the long awaited Karonga/Chitipa road.

        China Hunan from Mainland China won the bid which was approved by the ADB but government later wanted to award the contract to a Portuguese firm, Mota Engil, the second lowest bidder, claiming China Hunan's bid was unrealistically low and that the company had very little experience in Africa.

        Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe confirmed on Sunday the ADB rejected the proposal at a meeting held between the bank and Malawi government in Tunisia last week.

        The Malawi government wanted the Tunisia meeting to authorise it to get another contractor for the road, said Gondwe.

        "They did not allow us to look for another contractor because of their regulations. But we are about to get another alternative for Karonga/Chitipa and I would be surprised if it does not start before end June," said Gondwe.

        The minister explained that the bank insisted that regardless of the unrealistic cost estimates, China Hunan should be allowed to go ahead with the construction.

        But Gondwe could not give further details about the alternatives, arguing there are still a few loose ends to tighten up before disclosing it.

        The problem with China Hunan, according to Gondwe, is that it would require more money to meet the total cost of the project.

        This paper reported last week that government met Taiwanese representatives where they offered to fund the road if the ADB continued to reject its favoured contractor, Mota Engil.

        Gondwe could neither confirm nor deny the reports on the Taiwanese offer, saying government was looking at a number of ways to handle the issue.

        According to Gondwe, the China Hunan's bid was 24 percent lower than the consulting engineers' estimates of K7.9 billion and 34 percent below the second lowest bidder.

        President Bingu wa Mutharika laid a foundation stone for the construction of the road this year ahead of a crucial byelection in Chitipa in December last year.

        The President's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the Chitipa Wenya constituency by-election that fell vacant following the collapse and subsequent death of Speaker of Parliament Rodwell Munyenyembe who belonged to the UDF.

        Last week, police and the District Commissioner (DC) for Chitipa stopped a rally that was aimed at soliciting people's views about development projects in the district.

        The meeting, which was reportedly organised by Concerned Citizens of Chitipa, was among other things also supposed to tackle the controversial Karonga/Chitipa road.

        The project failed to start off in 2000 when a contract for an initial loan of US$17 million and US$15 million from the Taiwanese government was signed, with some quarters claiming the Bakili Muluzi administration diverted the money to another road.

        *****

        Chihana operated on

        by Edwin Nyirongo, 22 May 2006 - 06:32:31

        Alliance for Democracy (Aford) president Chakufwa Chihana, who is in South Africa receiving treatment, had a brain operation on Friday at Garden City Clinic, family and party officials confirmed on Sunday.

        Aford national chairman Chipimpha Mughogho said he was told by the family members that Chihana had a successful operation on Friday and was put in an intensive care unit.

        Mughogho said Chihana, who initially complained of headache, was found with a brain tumour which South African doctors removed.

        Mzimba West MP Loveness Gondwe said Aford boss condition was stable.

        "Hon. Chihana had a major operation and after that he was put in the intensive care unit but his condition is stable. I do not know where he was operated on but it had something to do with the skull," she said.

        Deputy Information Minister John Bande referred the matter to the Health Minister Hetherwick Ntaba who was reported to be in Geneva, Switzerland.

        Aford publicity secretary Norman Nyirenda said when Chihana's situation got worse, the family alerted the Office of the President and Cabinet who took him to Mwaiwathu Private Hospital.

        "The doctors at Mwaiwathu advised that he should be sent to South Africa and they even identified the doctor for him," he said.

        He said the costs are being met by the Malawi government, contradicting his earlier statement that his boss covered the cost.

        Mughogho is now in charge of the party.

        Gondwe will be a busy person when Parliament starts meeting on June 6 as she is the only Aford MP remaining.

        *****

        Pillane proposes presidential age limit

        by Emmanuel Muwamba , 22 May 2006 - 06:34:13

        A member of the DPP National Governing Council Abdul Pillane on Saturday urged members of political parties and the civil society to put an upper age limit in the Constitution for presidential candidates.

        Pillane was addressing members of political parties and civil society in Liwonde during a two-day follow up workshop to the National Conference on the Review of Constitution held in March in Lilongwe.

        "My view is that (an upper) age limit should be at 75. We have to give a chance to younger people to lead because in circumstance, when you age you become forgetful especially when sickly," said Pillane. "Overall, chances should be given to young people."

        But UDF secretary general Kennedy Makwangwala, whose party members agitated for the age limit during presentations, played the issue down.

        "I feel there is no logic to have an upper age limit for presidential candidates. If someone is 90 or 80 I don't know how that can influence the electorate not to vote for someone who is younger, I don't see any logic behind that," said Makwangwala.

        MCP participants at the workshop also vehemently objected to the proposal.

        MCP vice president Nicholas Dausi in an interview said: "There is no constitution in Africa which stipulates an upper age limit. So it would be strange in Malawi to have an upper age limit for presidential candidates."

        MDP President Kamlepo Kalua also opposed the need to have an upper age limit.

        "If we have personalities in mind that we want to discriminate against then it is unfortunate. The constitution we want to build is a guiding document for future generations and it should not bar certain individuals on the basis of grudges," he said.

        The Malawi Law Constitution Issues Paper of March 2006 says several submissions that were received put an upper presidential age limit in the Constitution.

        "It is argued that it is common sense that mental knowledge faculties tend to fail with age. As regards what the actual age limit should be the submissions are far from being agreed. The range is from 60 years to 80 years," read submissions in the Issues Paper.

        On whether MPs should double as ministers, Kalua said this should be the case.

        Makwangwala also said it is not right for MPs to serve as ministers because the Legislature, another arm of government, is reduced while the Executive branch is beefed up from another arm of government.

        "There is no separation of powers when MPs double as ministers," said Makwangwala.

        But Pillane said there is no problem for MPs to work as ministers as well, saying MPs are elected by the President.

        "One can serve both posts. There have been no problems before for people to double," said Pillane.

        The Centre for Multiparty Democracy funded the workshop through the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy.

        The objective was to come up with a collective position on the Issues Paper which will be presented to the Special Law Commission that will be constituted soon.

        *****

        Mussa hails new driving licence

        by Zainah Liwanda, 22 May 2006 - 06:58:52

        Transport and Public Works Minister Henry Mussa last week said the design of the Malawi-Sadc driving licence would guard against forgery and ensure that only skilled and legitimate drivers of particular vehicles are licensed.

        Mussa was speaking at the official launch of the licences in Lilongwe where he announced that traffic police would from July enforce speed limits and sober driving using Breathalysers which his ministry is in the process of procuring.

        The minister said financial constraints are the reason for the delay in procuring the equipment but assured that by July they would be available.

        "With the new equipment, the days of those who believe in the thrill of drink and driving are numbered," warned Mussa.

        Mussa added that with the new licence, government is optimistic that the country's roads would be safe.

        Acting Director of Road Traffic James Chirwa said the features that distinguish the new from the old licences are the Malawi national flag and a ghost image of the driver's photograph, among others.

        Those with old licences, according to Chirwa, are expected to get the new ones after the expiry of the former.

        *****

        UDF demands investigation on Kasambara

        by Rabecca Theu, 22 May 2006 - 06:30:46

        The United Democratic Front (UDF) has asked government to investigate Ralph Kasambara on allegations of abuse of office while he was attorney general.

        UDF publicity secretary Sam Mpasu told the press Sunday that the party is neither amused or saddened by the removal of the former AG but asked government to institute investigations on Kasambara.

        "Beyond the removal of the Attorney General, we now urge President Mutharika to institute investigation against Mr Kasambara into allegations that have made rounds in the public domain during the recent past. These include: Mrs Helen Singh and SS Rent-a-Car; SGS and ITS saga; ...........the use of Malawi Police Service in the arrest of three Chronicle journalists and the handling of Mrs Rubina Kawonga," said Mpasu.

        Mpasu also accused Kasambara of awarding government contracts to Lawson and Company where he was a senior partner.

        "We urge government to thoroughly investigate the former AG. We also ask government to cautiously select the new AG ," said Mpasu, who was accompanied by the party's Secretary General Kennedy Makwangwala, leader of the party in Parliament George Mtafu, chief whip Leonard Mangulama and a member of the executive Hophmally Makande.

        But Minister of Information Patricia Kaliati said UDF should give offer its advice to the Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB).

        "They should advise bodies like the Anti-Corruption Bureau to conduct the investigations and why are they saying this now? Is it because Kasambara has been fired? This is not a personal issue. If they have other pressing issues they should just say so. These arguments should have come up earlier on when the said cases were happening," she said.

        Kasambara asked UDF to proceed with the mission of urging government to investigate him.

        "They can do their job. Everyone has a right to lobby for anything they want in the country. UDF has a right to do that, let them go ahead," he said.

        Kasambara was relieved of his duties as AG by the President last week. Government has not given reasons behind the removal.

        *****

        Zambia: Malawians Grab Zambian Land

        The Times of Zambia (Ndola)

        May 18, 2006

        Posted to the web May 19, 2006

        Andrew Lungu

         

        MALAWIANS who have encroached on both the 'no-man's' and part of the Zambian land at the Mwami border in Eastern Province have plucked out some beacons that were used in the demarcation of the border.

        The Malawians are now using the beacons as stools in their newly-established villages on Zambian land.

        Eastern Province Minister, Boniface Nkhata, said in Chipata yesterday that if the situation was not controlled urgently, Zambia would lose huge tracts of land to Malawians migrating into Zambian in large numbers.

        A check at the Zambia-Malawi border showed a number of beacons had been vandalised and new structures constructed on the 'no man's' land and a large portion of Zambian land.

        Mr Nkhata said the trend extended to many parts of the province bordering the two countries.

        "A large portion of Zambian land has been taken up by the Malawians starting from the Chama boundary up to the Mwami border.

        "The weighbridge at the Mwami border was initially in Zambia from the time both countries gained independence from Britain, but now the bridge is on Malawian soil," Mr Nkhata said.

        The minister, who is former Chama District Commissioner, said there was similar encroachment in Lundazi and Chama districts where Zambia shares a boundary with Malawi.

        He said a Malawian farmer identified as Mr Mfune had cultivated 71.5 hectares on Zambian land and employed about 265 Malawian workers.

        "Khombe Farm in Chama district in Kanyerere's area, along the Muyombe road which leads to Northern Province where this Malawian farmer has cultivated a vast land is on the Zambian territory," he said.

        Workers on the farm admitted that they were farming on Zambian soil but could not go back to Malawi because the land in that country was inadequate for cultivation.

        Mr Nkhata appealed to the ministry of Lands to urgently release money for the demarcation of the Zambia-Malawi border to avoid further land disputes between the two countries.

        Meanwhile, the Immigration Department in Livingstone has arrested a couple and another man, all Zimbabweans, for working in Zambia without permits.

        They were arrested at Gwembe village yesterday where they worked for Into Africa, a tour operating company that provides bush dinners and breakfast.

        According to the Immigration Department in Livingstone, the trio entered Zambia through the Victoria Falls border as visitors but decided to work for the company illegally.

        Last week, immigration officers arrested 10 Zimbabwean traders and six Ethiopians for entering and staying in Zambia illegally.

        The Zimbabwean traders were warned and cautioned and later released.

        The Ethiopians were arrested at Konje Guest House when they ran out of money to proceed to Botswana.

         

        *****

        Zim unions, MDC still plan anti-govt protests

        Harare, Zimbabwe

        22 May 2006 11:51

        Zimbabwe's biggest labour federation on Saturday threatened to call massive demonstrations against the government over poor salaries and worsening living conditions for workers in the country.

        The threats are ratcheting up pressure against President Robert Mugabe's government after similar threats by the biggest opposition party in the country, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), about two months ago.

        Speaking at the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) conference on Saturday, the labour body's president, Lovemore Matombo, said the powerful union wants the government to award workers salaries that match the country's ever-rising inflation.

        "I can assure you we will stage massive demonstrations to force them [employers] to award workers minimum salaries that tally with the poverty datum line," said Matombo.

        Matombo did not say when exactly the ZCTU would order workers to strike.

        Opposition protests

        Meanwhile, the MDC on Sunday said it will push ahead with plans for anti-government protests, saying victory in a key by-election at the weekend was a "sign the electorate supported its policies", including democratic mass resistance.

        A spokesperson of the main faction of the splintered MDC, Nelson Chamisa, said victory over Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF and a rival MDC faction in a Saturday by-election in Harare's Budiriro constituency is a sign Zimbabweans still have confidence in party leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his policies.

        Tsvangirai, the founding leader of the MDC, heads the main rump of the opposition party whose candidate, Emmanuel Chisvuure, polled 7 949 votes to win the Budiriro House of Assembly seat.

        Gabriel Chaibva of the other faction of the MDC, led by prominent academic Arthur Mutambara, garnered 504 votes while Zanu-PF's Jeremiah Bvirindi polled 3 961 votes.

        "This election showed that the electorate still has confidence in the MDC [Tsvangirai-led] leadership and its policies," Chamisa told independent news service ZimOnline.

        He added: "We will now move to consolidate our position * we still believe in mass protests. Until we have attained our goals we see no reason why we should abandon [plans for protests]."

        Tsvangirai has threatened to call mass protests this winter against Mugabe and his government. He says the mass protests, whose date he is still to name, are meant to force Mugabe to relinquish power to a government of national unity to be tasked to write a new and democratic Constitution that would ensure free and fair elections held under international supervision.

        Mugabe and his government, who had hoped for victory in Budiriro to show they were recapturing urban support from a splintered MDC, have not taken idly the opposition's threats to call mass protests, with the veteran president warning Tsvangirai he would be "dicing with death" if he ever attempted to instigate a Ukraine-style popular revolt in Zimbabwe.

        Crackdown

        In a fresh crackdown against dissension, the police last week arrested several church and civic leaders for organising public prayers and marches to mark last year's controversial home-demolition exercise by the government.

        The police also banned the marches and prayers, fearing they could easily turn into mass protests against Mugabe and his government.

        However, the marches went ahead in the second-largest city of Bulawayo after organisers had obtained a court order barring the police from stopping the march.

        Political analysts say although Zimbabweans have largely been cowed by Mugabe's tactics of routinely deploying riot police and the military to crush street protests, worsening hunger and poverty are fanning public anger that Tsvangirai -- with proper planning and organisation -- could easily manipulate.

        Zimbabwe is in the grip of a severe six-year old economic crisis that has seen inflation breaching the 1 000% barrier. Last year, the World Bank said Zimbabwe's economic crisis was unprecedented for a country not at war.

        The MDC and major Western governments blame Mugabe for wrecking the country's economy, which was one of the strongest in Africa at independence from Britain 26 years ago.

        Mugabe denies the charge blaming the crisis on sabotage by Britain and her allies after he seized white-owned farms for redistribution to landless blacks six years ago.

        The Harare authorities recently hiked salaries for civil servants, with the lowest-paid soldier now earning about Z$27-million while the lowest-paid school teacher now takes home about Z$33-million.

        But the salaries are still way below the poverty datum line, which the government's Consumer Council of Zimbabwe says now stands at a staggering Z$42-million a month for an average family of six.

        The Zimbabwe government often accuses the ZCTU, a strong ally of the MDC, of pushing a political agenda to remove Mugabe from power.

        Meanwhile, Matombo and Lucia Matibenga retained their posts as president and first vice-president respectively during the ZCTU congress that ended on Saturday. -- ZimOnline

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