- How Malawi's top two men fell out
Following the arrest of Malawian Vice-President Cassim Chilumpha on charges of treason, the BBC's Chakuchanya Harawa looks at the history of a feud between the country's two most powerful men.
The stand-off between President Bingu wa Mutharika and his deputy, Cassim Chilumpha, can be traced back the fall-out between the president and his predecessor, Bakili Muluzi, who leads the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) party.
When the current president quit Mr Muluzi's party to form his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), several senior officials of the UDF who were serving in his government followed him.
But Mr Chilumpha remained loyal to the former president.
Critics argue that the real cause of the impasse was Mr Muluzi's decision to pair the two men on the UDF ticket ahead of the May 2004 presidential elections.
Mr Muluzi, as chairman of the UDF, imposed the two strangers on the then ruling party. It soon became clear that the two could not work together.
The relationship between Mr wa Mutharika and Mr Chilumpha had deteriorated to the point where the vice-president no longer attended cabinet meetings or state functions where his boss was present.
Eventually, in February this year, Mr Mutharika announced that his deputy had "constructively" resigned from his position.
The president accused his deputy of insubordination, running a parallel government and failing to perform his duties.
The vice-president disputed this, telling Malawi's High Court: "I have not deliberately failed to perform in accordance with my mandate as vice-president.
"Rather, through an organised campaign of public humiliation, the government has systematically abused me, destroyed my public image, traumatised me and utterly undermined my ability".
The court reinstated him pending a judicial review, and the ensuing stand-off sparked a debate on whether the president can fire his deputy.
According to the constitution, the two top leaders can only be removed from office by an impeachment process in parliament.
Attempts by the opposition parties, led by the UDF, to impeach President Mutharika convinced the president that his deputy was out to get him.
Mr Chilumpha would have become president in the event of a successful impeachment of his boss.
The vice-president has since made several efforts to reconcile with the president, but all have been snubbed.
The announcement of the vice-president's arrest therefore came as little surprise to many Malawians.
It is the reasons for the arrest which may have seemed more shocking.
"The police learnt that Mr Chilumpha had hired an assassin to assassinate the president and all deliberations were recorded so the police had enough evidence with which to arrest and prosecute the vice-president," Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Henry Phoya has claimed.
Mr Phoya said presidential immunity does not extend to the vice-president. He added that even if Mr Chilumpha were immune from prosecution, it could have been a mockery of justice to allow him to carry out the alleged crime before moving in on him.
The current problems are not only political. There is also the religious factor, since Mr Chilumpha and his alleged Malawian accomplices are all Muslims.
Sympathisers of the UDF - whose leader, Mr Muluzi, is also a Muslim - often argue that prominent political arrests since Mr Mutharika came to power seem to be targeting Muslims.
One of the main reasons why Mr Muluzi handpicked the Catholic Mr Mutharika and the Muslim Mr Chilumpha was so that the two would be political force.
The vice-president's lawyer, Fahad Assani, now thinks the arrests are a continuation of the harassment of Muslims by the Mutharika administration.
But government supporters contend arrests have been made across tribes, regions and religions.
In a statement issued at the weekend, the Malawi government has promised to bring before court as soon as is practicable Mr Chilumpha and any others who may be also subsequently arrested in connection with the allegations of treason.
Malawi: More Twists in the Road to Political Stability
UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
May 2, 2006
Posted to the web May 2, 2006
Malawi's vice-president was denied bail by a magistrate on Tuesday for the charge of plotting to assassinate President Bingu wa Mutharika, in a case several political analysts fear could further undermine political stability.
Vice-President Cassim Chilumpha returned to Maula prison in the capital, Lilongwe, for a fifth consecutive night after the magistrate rejected the argument that he was immune from prosecution, and referred the case to the high court.
"This is a derogation of democratic processes and the rule of law," said Rafiq Hajat, director of the NGO, Institute for Policy Alternatives. "It hasn't really sunk in yet, but I think one element people are feeling is fear - are we going back to the old days [of dictator Kamazu Banda]?"
The government insists it has evidence that Chilumpha, a senior member of the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF), hired a would-be assassin from South Africa to eliminate Mutharika and take power as the next in line, constitutionally.
But it is a scenario several analysts said was difficult to swallow, and alleged it was more likely the latest twist in drawn-out power struggle. "When you look at the politics that's been between the president and the vice-president, one has grounds for being suspicious [of the government's case]," said Boniface Dulani, a political science lecturer at Chancellor College.
Chilumpha's arrest came two months after the Constitutional Court ordered his reinstatement following an attempt by Mutharika to remove him through a "constructive resignation". The court ruled that only parliament could impeach the vice-president.
The men have been at loggerheads since Mutharika, a protégé of former president Bakili Muluzi, quit the UDF to form his own party after meeting resistance to his anti-graft campaign. Chilumpha was first arrested last year on corruption charges related to his time as education minister under Muluzi.
Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Henry Phoya has denied that the new treason charge against Chilumpha was politically motivated and alleged that Chilumpha had ordered a prominent businessman, linked to Muluzi, to hire a professional hitman. The unnamed would-be assassin is expected to be a key witness for the state.
The UDF has insisted on Chilumpha's right to immunity, arguing that the right course of action would be to take the case to parliament, prove his guilt, and ask parliament to impeach him.
"This is not the first time that senior UDF members have been charged with treason," said UDF spokesman Sam Mpasu, a reference to the arrest last year of four party leaders for an alleged assassination plot. "This is a ploy by government to get rid of the UDF."
Analysts warned that after last year's intense political wrangling, in which the opposition tried to impeach Mutharika, Malawi was again heading for instability.
The president's Democratic Progressive Party holds a minority of seats in parliament, and Chilumpha's arrest "may serve to unify the ranks of the previously fragmented UDF", said Hajat. When parliament resumes in June, the first casualty could be the national budget.
"I don't think the government and the country will be able to move forward, and will be tied up [again] with these power struggles," commented Dulani. Last year diplomats in Malawi intervened, calling on parliament to halt the impeachment attempt, which was diverting attention from a serious drought-related food crisis.
The bigger concern, said Dulani, was Mutharika's alleged authoritarian streak. "There's an irony: this week [President Robert] Mugabe is visiting Malawi and we're naming a street after him, I wonder if we are going down the same road [as Zimbabwe]?"
Migrant workers spreading Aids in Mzimba*MP
by Edwin Nyirongo, 03 May 2006 - 06:31:23
There are a lot of people infected and affected by HIV and Aids in Mzimba Solola due to the big number of people who go and work outside the country, particularly South Africa, MP for the area Getrude Mkandawire said on Saturday.
She said this during the opening of Zubayumo VCT Centre in Inkosi ya Makosi M'mbelwa in Mzimba which was built by Tovwirane HIV and Aids Organisation.
"Zubayumo area has been worst hit by the HIV pandemic because of migrant labourers to South Africa. Many have gone to South Africa looking for work only to come back in coffins leaving widows and orphans suffering," she said.
Mkandawire said after realising the problem, people of the area came together and proposed to have a structure that could help them know their status to avoid spreading the virus.
"The problem in many rural areas is that people go for HIV testing when they are very sick which makes it difficult for ARVs to work in their bodies. But with the introduction of the VCT centre in the area, they will be able to know their status even before getting sick," she said.
She said many women are found with HIV because more of them than men go for testing.
Tovwirane Executive Director Hellen Munthali said apart from the voluntary counselling and testing, the building would be used as an outreach clinic by Mzimba District Hospital because there is no health centre in the area.
She said other functions will be under fives clinics, home-based care givers training centre, community-based child care centre, adult literacy programme for community volunteers and recreation centre for the youth.
Funding for the project came from the MP herself and Plan Malawi.
Goba, Weche change plea
by Olivia Kumwenda, 03 May 2006 - 06:22:53
Blantyre-based businessman Henry Bashir Hassan Goba and his colleague Anthony Weche on Tuesday pleaded guilty to the charge of operating a wholesale pharmacy without permit and illegal possession of medical drugs, a charge which they had earlier denied.
The count is contrary to Section 35 (4) of the Pharmacy, Medicines and Poisons Board Act.
The two, however, still face another count of being found in possession of goods "reasonably suspected" to have been stolen or unlawfully obtained and failing to give satisfactory account of the same contrary to Section 329 of the Penal Code which they denied.
The accused changed their plea on the count after one of their lawyers Christopher Chiphwanya cross-examined the first State witness Lucy Nyirenda, a senior assistant drug inspector at the Pharmacy, Medicines and Poisons Board.
Nyirenda, while being examined by State lawyers, told the court last week that Goba, owner of Polychem Company, was operating the business illegally as it was not registered with the board.
The State on Tuesday introduced to the court documents seized together with the medical drugs and surgical equipment. The documents included the company's delivery notes, invoices and cash sales.
The cash sales showed where Goba sold the medical drugs and the list included big hospitals like St Luke's Hospital in Malosa, Zomba Central Hospital and Mlambe Mission Hospital in Lunzu, among others.
Nyirenda, while answering questions posed by Chiphwanya, told the court that these hospitals have pharmacists who check the quality of medicines being administered to their patients and they cannot allow expired drugs to be given to patients.
Nyirenda, who had earlier on told the court that drugs in Goba's warehouses were not being kept in good condition as some were exposed to heat, also said as a person with knowledge and experience she cannot buy drugs which have dust and have been affected by heat.
After the cross-examination, Chiphwanya told the court that his clients want to plead guilty to the count of operating a wholesale pharmacy without permit.
After the two took their guilty plea on the count, the State read to the court caution statements taken by the police after their arrests where they denied the charge and said the medical drugs in their possession were from Mozambique.
Asked by Senior Resident Magistrate Kingsley Mlungu if they accept the read statements, Goba and Weche said what was written was not true.
"The facts in the caution statements are not true, when we were writing the statements we were being tortured by the police. The whole caution statement is fake, the true facts are those said by Mrs Nyirenda and our guilty plea is based on that," Goba told the court before Weche said the same.
Mlungu then said the court will proceed to sentence the two on the count while trial will proceed on the remaining count.
The case has since been adjourned to next Wednesday for sentencing and the parading of more witnesses on the other count.
The two are being accused together with four pharmacy assistants from Mulanje and Chiradzulu district hospitals, each of whom face two counts of theft by public servant contrary to Section 278 as read with 283 (1) of the Penal Code or an alternative count of negligence by public servant contrary to Section 284 of the Penal Code.
The four pharmacy assistants; Prince Winga, Kenneth Kazando, Stanford Miyango and Christina Mwinjiwa are said to have failed to account for assorted medical equipment under their control.
Malawi: Church Survey Finds Legislators Incompetent
Catholic Information Service for Africa (Nairobi)
May 2, 2006
Posted to the web May 2, 2006
A survey by the Catholic Church in parts of the country to assess the levels of interaction between Members of Parliament and their constituents has revealed that most MPs neither consult their constituents nor give them feed back on parliamentary proceedings.
Over 80 per cent of respondents indicated neither consultation nor feedback from their Members of parliament, The Chronicle newspaper reports.
The report also indicated that there is little or no mechanism put in place through which the peoples' issues can be presented in Parliament because their MPs do not live in their constituencies.
"These are findings from nine constituencies selected for the survey, however, it is possible to imagine that these findings are cut across most of the constituencies in Malawi," said Chris Chisoni of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP).
On how the constituents get information on parliamentary proceedings, the report indicated that 96 percent of the respondents relied on radio, an observation which made the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Esther Mcheka Chilenje, support live coverage of House proceedings.
Commenting on the report, Zomba Central Constituency MP Yunus Mussa said he would take the report seriously and do something about it. "As a matter of fact, I consult my constituents and give them feedback every time I go to Parliament. However, since the remarks are coming from the people who elected me I will take it seriously and start from there," he said.
Zim starts to run out of anti-retrovirals
03 May 2006 10:44
Desperately needed anti-retroviral drugs for HIV/Aids patients are running out in Zimbabwe, reports said on Wednesday.
Zimbabwe has been hard-hit by the HIV/Aids pandemic and at least one in five members of the country's 11,6-million people is believed to be HIV-positive.
But only 20 000 people are on a life-saving programme of anti-retrovirals, known as ARVs, and now there is only one month's supply of the drugs left, the acting managing director of the National Pharmaceutical Company (Natpharm) was quoted as saying.
"We have less than a month's supply of the vital drugs and that is not encouraging," Charles Mwaramba told a parliamentary portfolio committee on health and child welfare that recently toured Natpharm, the state-owned Herald newspaper reported.
It is vital for people who have started on ARVs to continue their courses uninterrupted, so that drug resistance does not develop.
Most of Zimbabwe's ARVs are imported from overseas, said Mwaramba. But the country's foreign currency crunch has made continued imports more and more difficult.
Mwaramba said that Natpharm had applied for $7,4-million from Zimbabwe's central bank to boost ARV imports between January and March this year. But the bank was only able to grant Natpharm $106 000, a tiny fraction of its needs, the paper reported.
"We understand that drugs are also competing with other items like fuel for foreign currency but the picture is not encouraging," Mwaramba said.
Zimbabwe's foreign currency shortages have caused havoc to many sectors of society. There are now serious shortages of fuel, electricity, blood supplies, machinery and some foods.
In a separate report, the Herald said Zimbabwe's only two radiotherapy machines had broken down "putting all cancer patients that require radiation treatment at risk".
One machine, located at Harare's Parirenyatwa Hospital, has not been working since March, the newspaper said.
The report said that in the past experts would have been brought in from neighbouring South Africa to mend the machines "but this has become unsustainable". - Sapa-DPA
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
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
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.
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