A sense of dread pervades a country

HARARE, – As if cholera, hyperinflation and food shortages were not enough, there is now also a growing sense of dread in Zimbabwe, as people anticipate living under a state of emergency. "Everything that can possibly go wrong has gone wrong in Zimbabwe," Ronnie Ncube told IRIN in the capital, Harare.

A power-sharing deal, touted as Zimbabwe’s escape route from its socioeconomic malaise, is deadlocked, while the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on 18 December that the cholera death toll since August had risen to 1,111, with 20,581 suspected cases.

Harare is bearing the brunt of the cholera outbreak, with 224 official recorded deaths and nearly half the suspected cases.

A bleak future

"When you look at the food shortages, the cholera epidemic, the collapsed health delivery system, the collapsed education sector and the rundown economy, then you realise that the future is bleak," Susan Moyo, who owns a small shop in the high-density suburb of Highfield in Harare, told IRIN.

"This is the festive season, but you don’t get the feeling that we are a few days away from Christmas because of the hardships and uncertainties surrounding us," she said.

"From a political point of view, the nation is listless and facing the future with fear and dread, because talks to share power between the main political parties have broken down with [Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader] Morgan Tsvangirai now exiled in Botswana."

Tsvangirai is in neighbouring Botswana, holding an expired Emergency Travel Document (ETD) after being denied a passport earlier in 2008.

President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF claim they are unable to provide Tsvangirai – who would become prime minister under the power-sharing deal – with a passport because of shortages of materials, but the MDC point out that thousands of other citizens have been issued with travel documents since their leader applied.

"The truth of the matter is that he has breached the time-scale of his ETD and thinks government may arrest him," government spokesman George Charamba told the state-controlled daily newspaper, The Herald. "There is neither rhyme nor reason to his argument."

Mugabe’s government has ratcheted up its rhetoric against the MDC in recent weeks, and has allegedly embarked on a series of abductions of MDC members as well as leading lights in civil society, but ZANU-PF is also facing dissent in its own ranks.

Political analyst Tendai Musah told IRIN that infighting in ZANU-PF over who would become Mugabe’s successor, ahead of the party’s annual conference starting on 18 December, was believed to be the source of an attempted assassination of a military chief, and a fatal car accident.

"Several events worth noting have happened in the run-up to the party conference: the political commissar [Elliot Manyika] died in a suspicious car accident, while the vice-chairman of war veterans broke his back in another suspicious accident; the air force commander escaped an assassination attempt, and all that points to bloody turf wars," Musah said.

ZANU-PF looks for enemies

ZANU-PF is using the assassination attempt on Air Marshall Perence Shiri, a cousin of Mugabe, as further "evidence", along with the bombings of a railway line in August, and the building housing the Criminal Investigations Department in Harare in November, to vindicate their claims that neighbouring Botswana is training and equipping an MDC militia.

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe told reporters on 17 December that his government’s view was that "there is no substance to such an allegation [of Botswana supporting MDC rebels]."

ZANU-PF’s constant haranguing of the MDC as "bandits" is reminiscent of language used in the 1980s, which culminated in Operation Gukurahundi (The rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rain), in which supporters of the rival liberation movement, ZAPU, were targeted in a bloody crackdown that led to the deaths of about 20,000 people, nearly all civilians.

In 1987, ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo signed an accord with Mugabe, forming an alliance between the two liberation movements, and 22 December was declared a public holiday to mark the occasion. This year the holiday is in doubt, as ZAPU has withdrawn from the accord.

"We have no doubt … that ZANU-PF is coming up with all sorts of fictitious stories in order to declare a state of emergency," MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti told IRIN.

"The allegations about the MDC training bandits in Botswana is the latest fictitious instalment designed to justify the declaration of a state of emergency.

"But a state of emergency, or the threat of one, can only point to a bleak future, because civil liberties are suspended, and that would lead to an escalation of human rights abuses," Biti said. "The basic fact is: no nation thrives when it is ruled through a state of emergency."