Zimbabwe Soldiers warn of more riots

Harare – In scenes that rattled the embattled regime of Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe and stoked speculation its days were numbered, dozens of soldiers ran amok in the capital Harare on December 1 in protest over the country's economic meltdown, and they warn that they will go into the streets again.

Some bystanders watched in amazement, some joined in as junior soldiers who, frustrated at being unable to access their meagre salaries because of acute cash shortages, ran through the streets, looting shops and attacking black-market currency dealers.

Although the state moved quickly to put the genie back in the bottle, arresting 16 soldiers who face court martial proceedings, the footsoldiers of Mugabe’s repressive regime warn they are likely to hit the streets again before long.

"Just like everyone else, we have stomachs and families to feed. We are suffering, just like most citizens in this country," one junior officer Ola (not his real name) tells Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

Sitting in a house in Mbare township south-west of Harare in worn boots and faded fatigues, Ola, a 27-year-old father of two and Duke (not his real name), 29, tell of the frustration that provoked their outburst.

"There is no junior army officer that still supports Mugabe. We are tired, we are suffering," says Duke. "If a foreign army comes to fight us, we will join them or flee to a neighbouring country."

Long lines

The riots began when the soldiers were forced to stand in long line with ordinary Zimbabweans for their money at a bank ATM instead of being paid at the barracks.

"Cash ran out (at the barracks) because the top guns finished the money. We then started walking into town to queue for cash," said Ola. "We got angry when we could not get it (the banks ran out of cash). That is when the chaos started."

The rioting was the first open challenge to Mugabe in his 28 years in power from within the normally loyal military. While that loyalty is still strong among the top brass, whom Mugabe has showered with gifts, including luxury vehicles and confiscated farms, junior officers, who are feeling the pinch of the economic crisis, are showing signs of fatigue.

The lowest-paid soldier in Zimbabwe earns about $10 a month.

"I am now (illegally) changing money. My wife does that when I am at work," says Ola, who has just returned from the city centre to receive a money "drop" from his wife.

"Because of the recent unrest (a series of protests by unions and activists), we are not allowed to go on leave – lest the situation gets out of hand and the army is called in," says Duke.

"They took our passports. Otherwise many of us could have fled the country and sought asylum," Duke says amid widespread reports in recent months that thousands of soldiers have already deserted, mostly to South Africa in search of work.

‘Head on’

Although the soldiers were seen attacking money changers, Ola blames the police and military police for violence during the protest. The police used batons to quell the riot.

"The idea was to show the public that even soldiers were now tired of this chaos. We wanted them to join us in marching since they have the same problems like us," Ola says.

Coming after bombings at two police stations in recent weeks that were caused minimum damage and were described by police as an inside job, the riots have sparked speculation that Mugabe’s hold on power may be loosening.

Ola and Duke said junior soldiers were ready to meet the Mugabe regime "head on."

"The top guns are getting payment in foreign currency but the rest of us, we are getting shells of peanuts," Ola complains. "We want to see if we will get a substantial salary rise in December as they promised. Otherwise, there will be another round of protests." – Sapa-dpa

– SAPA