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  • Christine Chumbler
    Malawi s Agricultural Sector in Dire Straits Business in Africa (Rivonia) July 5, 2005 Posted to the web July 7, 2005 Frank Jomo Rivonia Malawi s entire
    Message 1 of 1046 , Jul 8 5:45 AM
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      Malawi's Agricultural Sector in Dire Straits

      Business in Africa (Rivonia)

      July 5, 2005
      Posted to the web July 7, 2005

      Frank Jomo

      Malawi's entire agricultural sector is in dire straits, with disastrous consequences for the entire economy.

      Malawi is bracing itself for tough times as the country's chief forex earner, tobacco, has realised below-par revenues for the second year running.

      Tobacco sales had already started to dwindle last year, and continued their nosedive in 2005, forcing the depreciation of the local currency, the Kwacha - which normally appreciates at this time.

      A Tobacco Control Commission Report on the tobacco sales currently in progress at the country's three auction floors indicate that revenue from sales of the crop, dubbed 'Malawi Green Gold', has fallen to US$159.3m this year, compared to US$205.6m a year ago - a downward plunge of 22.5%, in spite of selling almost the same amount of tobacco.

      The report indicates that in terms of prices as at May 19, 37.6m kg of Malawi's biggest seller, burley tobacco, was sold at an average price of US$1.16, a price decline of 15.5% compared to last year.

      In all, burley tobacco sales realised US$118.3m, compared to US$165.1m last year. The trend continued with all other types of tobacco.

      "There are no indications that the tobacco prices will change in future," says the TCC report.

      The tobacco sales this year have been characterised by disruption by farmers, following the low prices being offered by buyers. Despite the intervention of government, the buyers continue to offer peanuts, much to the chagrin of farmers.

      The dwindling sales of this major export commodity has put huge pressure on Malawi's foreign reserves, forcing the Kwacha to depreciate against major currencies like the United States dollar since March.

      Cost of living

      To add insult to injury, the Kwacha's fall has seen oil prices rise steeply - which, in turn, will result in price increases for basic commodities and an escalation in the cost of living in a country where 65% of its people already live below the United Nations threshold of US$1 a day.

      Malawi's economy is largely based on agriculture, and tobacco contributes 70% of Malawi's foreign exchange earnings. However, a report on the "Living and Working Conditions of Tobacco Tenants and Other Workers" has revealed that this benefit to the nation rides on the back of horrific living conditions experienced by estate tenants.

      2004 was a disastrous year for the tobacco industry, with buyers offering very low prices for the leaf due to what they said were quality problems. The problem of non-tobacco related materials (NTRM), especially plastic pieces, featured high.

      Captains of the tobacco industry say the country risks losing its major tobacco buyers because unscrupulous growers are putting materials such as stones and plastic pieces in their bales. Limbe Leaf Company managing director Charlie Graham told officials who attended an annual field day at Kandiya Research Station in Malawi's capital city of Lilongwe that the country had lost millions of dollars over the last few years because of malpractice.

      Supply and demand

      While some commentators have acknowledged that this year's tobacco crop was of good quality, the prices have not reflected the truth on the ground.

      "What pains us farmers is that while tobacco is grown in Malawi by poor and ill-fed farmers, prices are dictated by buyers from rich countries abroad. I am thinking of stopping growing tobacco because instead of making me rich, it has impoverished me more.

      "The little I am realising from here, I am to share with my tenants, and the remaining is for the service of bank loans," said farmer Wazili Idi from the lake shore district of Mangochi, one of Malawi's major producing districts.

      Meanwhile growers have threatened to cut back on production so that supply on the market is reduced to force buyers pay more.

      "The cost of production is very high, yet buyers do not seem to care. I would rather cut on volumes and concentrate on quality. That way I hope to get more per kilogramme," some farmers were quoted as saying recently.

      Cotton vs tobacco

      As the tobacco industry continue to wobble, sectors of the society, led by Malawi leader Bingu wa Mutharika, have urged farmers to try other crops. Wa Mutharika has often said he would like to make cotton Malawi's chief crop to replace tobacco.

      But while that can never happen in the foreseeable future, cotton itself is not a crop that is faring well on the local market. The government was forced to close the cotton market to force buyers pay more for the crop.

      In turn, buyers have accused the government of politicising the price of cotton to score political points.

      Great Lakes Company, a major cotton buyer, told the press that government was imposing a price of K25 (approximately R1.30) on the buyers without any agreement between the two parties.

      "As traders, we said we would pay the highest price we could offer, but unfortunately government has been misguided and announced the price without discussing with us. We know they will shoot themselves in the foot politically if they lower the price," Great Lakes Company general manager Corin Jones told the local press.

      But the government counter-argues that the only bone of contention was whether it should be minimum price or recommended price. As government, it says it is are concerned that even in Mozambique the same companies are buying the cotton at K27.50 per kilogram.

      Ultimately, nothing seems to be working in the agriculture industry in Malawi. In fact, the industry seems to have collapsed altogether, which is a sure recipe for disaster in this impoverished nation.


      Crops fail across southern Africa

      More than 10 million people need food aid after crop failure in six southern African countries, the United Nations food agency says.
      The World Food Programme says that people are going hungry after erratic weather, made worse by problems with fertiliser and seeds in some countries.

      Zimbabwe and Malawi are the worst hit countries, the WFP says.

      It urged donors to send aid to "avoid widespread hunger from developing into a humanitarian disaster".

      Malawi has experienced its lower maize harvest since 1992 and will only cover 37% of average national consumption of 3.4m tonnes of cereal, the WFP said.

      In Zimbabwe, the WFP says that four million people may need aid in the coming year.

      Swaziland, Mozambique, Zambia and Lesotho will also need help, it said on the basis of new crop studies.

      All countries are badly hit by the Aids pandemic, which kills those who would normally be the most productive farmers.

      Donors say that Zimbabwe's problems have been made worse by the government's seizure of white-owned farms.

      This is strongly denied by the government.


      Zambia works to shed corrupt image

      Benita van Eyssen | Lusaka, Zambia

      05 July 2005 07:14

      Standing in the lobby of a Lusaka hotel, the engineering consultant warns of the pitfalls of doing business in Zambia.

      "You must be careful with the payments. Watch your money here. Everyone wants money. Ask me, I have been doing business here since the 1980s," the bespectacled white man whispers.

      Speaking as a veteran business visitor to the landlocked Southern African country, he is aware that greasing someone's palm is par for the course in Zambia. Colleagues in his company agree, as do most business visitors from outside the country.

      Overland travel without provision for bribes at roadblocks can be an uncomfortable experience, locals say, while according to a city architect, abandoned building sites in Lusaka stand as evidence of corruption.

      "I know of two cases in which the hot money ran out," he says.

      In an African context, Zambia's level of corruption is hardly the worst, but it is a problem and politicians, church leaders and ordinary Zambians are starting to speak out against it.

      With its new status as a highly indebted poor country (HIPC) and the recent scrapping of its debt to Paris Club creditors boosting hopes of an economic upswing, perceptions are everything.

      The HIPC approval has been attributed in part to President Levy Mwanawasa's anti-corruption drive that has seen charges brought against his predecessor, Frederick Chiluba.

      Another high-profile case of corruption against a businessman linked to the ruling party is pending and several serving government officials are under suspicion for allegedly shady dealings.

      Such action has earned the government praise from donors and institutions in wealthy nations, but ordinary Zambians are sceptical, while prominent journalists have questioned the motives and commitment behind the anti-corruption moves.

      "When you're a policeman and you get so little money every month, what reason is there for you not to take a bribe?" asks a taxi driver in Lusaka.

      Despite the Paris Club creditors writing off money owing to them, Zambia has accumulated $3,8-billion in debt over the past few decades and is likely to remain one of the poorest countries in the world for some time.

      About 80% of the population lives below the poverty line, with about half a million people relying on food aid, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

      Authorities expect the number to rise to about 1,2-million in the coming months.

      "We will have to scale up our efforts. We don't have enough money. We've received a fifth of the money needed. With government saying there's an increase in the number of people affected, we're very concerned," said Jo Woods, a spokesperson for the WFP operation in Zambia.

      The food shortage is based on government records of crop failures in 27 districts around the country. The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and pests also contributed to the present situation.

      Over the past two years, Zambia has exported its surplus food to other countries in the region that have been harder hit by weather patterns, poor crop management and a lack of irrigation, but maize exports have now been banned in an effort to overcome the domestic food shortage.

      That the country's agriculture minister has encouraged food-for-work programmes is seen as a positive step and an indication that Zambia is keen to support itself, Woods said.

      "One NGO, for example, is involved in fish farming. While the farm is being built, those who are working on it are given a 50kg bag of maize a month," she said.

      Meanwhile, some subsistence farmers are looking at diversifying their crops, with some reverting to the production of cassava.

      "We have been trying to make farmers understand that the environment has changed. In the past, farming was a livelihood. We have been encouraging them to go into more viable crops other than maize," said Zambian National Farmers' Union economist Ellah Chembe.

      Zambia, once at the frontline of Southern Africa's liberation struggle and a transit point for African intellectuals, scientists and politicians, is determined to recultivate that image.

      "It is a country of missed chances, but it is not a hopeless case," said one foreign diplomat, summing up the new-found sentiment. -- Sapa-DPA


      The down side of the G8 debt deal
      By Hannah Goff
      BBC News

      The G8 deal to wipe out $40bn (£23bn) of debt owed by 18 of the world's poorest countries has been hailed by some as a great act of western philanthropy.

      Campaigners complain that donor countries are using the debt relief package to force privatisation and a liberal economic agenda.

      Few can forget the floods that devastated Mozambique five years ago.

      Television pictures showed people clambering up trees to escape the rising waters. One woman even gave birth while she waited to be rescued from the tree-tops.

      What most concerned viewers would not have realised was that Mozambique's water system was privatised the previous year at the World Bank's behest.

      To gain Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) status - to qualify for aid and debt relief - the country had to privatise its urban water supply.

      In 1999 the Aguas de Mocambique consortium, headed by the French firm Saur, took on a 15-year contract.

      But after huge swathes of the country were left under water, at an enormous cost, Saur announced it was pulling out.


      No reason was given but reports at the time said the increasing returns on which the consortium's business plan was based were not realised.

      The firm still will not comment on the reason for its withdrawal.

      But such a pull-out would not have been an option for a state-owned utility.

      It was three years before a reformed consortium could begin an investment programme.

      Although the Mozambican privatisation was sealed before the G8 debt relief deal was drawn up, the qualification process under the HIPC scheme remains the same.

      War on Want campaigns director John Hilary explains: "To qualify for debt relief and have the opportunity to tackle poverty, countries have to do these sometimes very damaging things like privatising their water or education systems.

      "They only get to be a chosen country by jumping through all these hoops."

      He highlighted the case of Tanzania, which was told it would qualify for HIPC debt relief if it privatised its Dar es Salaam water programme.

      In May, two years after signing a deal with consortium City Water, led by British firm Biwater, the Tanzanian government stripped the firm of its contract, saying services had deteriorated.

      Biwater, which is suing the Tanzanians for breach of contract, denies this claim and says its plans to invest £8.5m over three years were on schedule.

      It also claimed there was more water in the system since it took over, saying some people had access to water for the first time.

      The government's decision to ditch the company was seen by many Tanzanians as long overdue, according to the BBC's Noel Mwakugu, in Das es Salaam.

      "What's worse," said Mr Hilary, " is that the Tanzanian government had to take out a whole tranche of loans to get the system ready for privatisation."

      So far 18 countries have been judged to have reached HIPC "completion point" by the World Bank. A further nine are expected to do so soon.

      The UK Treasury says it is pushing hard to ensure "no new conditionality" is attached to the G8 agreement stressing that its main objective is to ensure savings are used for poverty reduction.

      "This does not involve 'strings' as we would not be imposing new conditionality on countries, but it does imply that a government must be committed to transparency and poverty reduction."

      But for development campaigners like George Mombiot, commentators need look no further than the second paragraph of the G7 finance ministers' statement on the deal back in mid-June.


      This says developing countries must "tackle corruption, boost private sector development, and attract investment" and remove "impediments to private investment both domestic and foreign."

      For Mr Mombiot the enforced liberalisation and privatisation the deal contains "are as onerous as the debt it relieves."

      But the Treasury says this is simply how economies grow and not an attempt to enforce privatisation.

      Director of global and national economics at the New Economics Foundation David Woodward says subjecting vital services in developing countries to the rigours of market forces can have very serious consequences.

      "If you have a context where half of the people exist on less than a dollar a day they simply can't afford to pay what would make it worthwhile for a commercial operator to charge."

      Another case, where the World Bank encouraged Mozambique to increase its user charges for health care, shows just how damaging liberal economics can be, he says.

      "In this case if you don't pay - you don't get the services. It actually kills people."

      The Treasury says it recognises concerns developing countries and NGOs have about the use of conditionality and that it has responded by publishing a new policy.

      The World Bank and IMF are also reviewing their approach to conditionality this year.

      But whether that will be in time for those hoping to win a reprieve from the crippling burden of debt remains to be seen.
    • 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.


        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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