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"This dictator must be brought down"
Moyiga Nduru, Inter Press Service (IPS)
March 23, 2007

JOHANNESBURG - Zimbabwe's outspoken Catholic archbishop, Pius Ncube, has volunteered to lead peaceful, mass protests to remove President Robert Mugabe from power, as Cardinal Jaime Sin did to unseat dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines more than two decades ago.

Sin made headlines around the world in 1986 after calling on a million people to form barricades to protect 300 army rebels against the advancing tanks of Marcos.

"If we can get 30,000 people in the streets, Mugabe will go down," Ncube told a briefing on Zimbabwe that took place in South Africa's commercial hub of Johannesburg, Friday. "I am prepared to lead the people against Mugabe. Like in the Philippines, our security forces will side with us if we are courageous."

The 83-year-old Zimbabwean leader has been in office since his country gained independence from Britain in 1980.

Rights groups hold him responsible for the death of up to 20,000 civilians at the hands of security forces in Matabeleland, southern Zimbabwe, during the 1980s -- a campaign that government conducted under the pretext of putting down a rebellion.

More recently Mugabe has been on a collision course with the country's leading opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Parliamentary and presidential elections held over the past few years have been marred by irregularities and human rights abuses, even as authorities clamped down on media freedom.

A controversial land redistribution programme has contributed to economic decline in Zimbabwe, which currently has the world's highest inflation rate (official figures indicate it is about 1,700 percent). Widespread hunger has become the norm.

"Right now some 2,000 people are dying in Zimbabwe every day. They die of AIDS and of malnutrition," Tendai Biti, an opposition member of parliament in Zimbabwe, said at the briefing in response to a question by IPS.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS puts adult HIV prevalence in Zimbabwe at just over 20 percent. Anti-retroviral drugs that prolong the lives of those who have contracted HIV are scarce.

"Life expectancy in Zimbabwe is now 35 years . . . Eighty percent of Zimbabweans live below the poverty line of one dollar a day. An average family affords only one meal a day," Biti added, as Ncube chipped in to note: "Our church clinics say a lot of (people) die of malnutrition. The doctors are not there and the nurses have taken off (for posts overseas)."

Hundreds are said to have been killed in the political violence that has wracked Zimbabwe since 2000, when the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front faced its first credible challenge at the polls, from the MDC. The latest victim is Gift Tandare, a pro-democracy activist who died Mar. 11 when police shot him during a prayer meeting organised by the opposition in the capital -- Harare.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was beaten during the gathering by police, who reportedly fractured his skull. The abuse meted out to the opposition leader and other activists elicited global condemnation.

"I was present when Tsvangirai and other opposition leaders were assaulted for one-and-a-half hour at Machipisa police station in Harare. I've watched a lot of movies but nothing prepared me for such brutality. It seemed surreal," Biti recounted.

Police have since refused to release Tandare's body to his relatives. Instead they fired live ammunition at a group of mourners, injuring two people -- one severely, in his left ankle. Video footage of the two patients lying in hospital was shown at the briefing; in the film, it was noted that amputation was being discussed for the mourner shot in the ankle.

Following the beatings of the opposition leader and supporters, Mugabe told his critics to "go hang". He also noted that "police have a right to bash" opponents, a comment that drew fire from Ncube.

"Police have no right to 'bash' anyone under any law in Zimbabwe, or in terms of any international conventions we are signatory to. We note that the state culture of impunity, which emanates from the highest office in the land, is generating a more general culture of violence," the cleric said.

"When a government allows impunity to its uniformed forces -- when police officers who torture and murder are not brought to justice, and are in fact told they have a right to do this -- it is tragically predictable that people's patience will run out. And, as anger and desperation rise, vigilante-style violence will rise," Ncube added.

"Reprisals have already taken place with a bus of mourners being vandalised, and three policewomen being tragically injured in their beds by petrol bombs. In Bulawayo (Zimbabwe's second largest city) an alleged attempt to derail a passenger train was thankfully unsuccessful."

Ncube appealed to Zimbabwean authorities to end impunity amongst the armed forces immediately, and prosecute those who violate the rights of citizens.

Furthermore, "The government should allow the citizens of Zimbabwe to hold peaceful gatherings and should restore to them their constitutional rights to do so. The government should refrain from inciting its supporters to violence, as should all citizens of Zimbabwe," he said.

"Zimbabweans are angrier now than they have been before. And I'm ready to lead them, in a non-violent mass action to get rid of Mugabe. This dictator must be brought down."

Nicholas Karonda, a Zimbabwean church minister and human rights activist based in South Africa, has criticised the deafening silence on abuses in Zimbabwe that is evident across much of Africa.

"We have heard some voices from South Africa, Ghana, Botswana and Zambia. Although they came late, they are better than never," he told IPS.

A relatively low key approach to the Zimbabwean crisis is being maintained by economically-powerful South Africa -- widely viewed as playing a key role in the fortunes of its northern neighbour.

However, Pretoria's policy of "quiet diplomacy" in respect of Zimbabwe came under heavy criticism Friday.

"The quiet diplomacy has manifestly failed," said South African Bishop Kevin Dowling, who chaired the briefing.

Noted Ncube: "South Africa can't be hypocritical when it's hosting about three million Zimbabweans who have fled Mugabe's tyrannical rule. People have died; people have been eaten by crocodiles while trying to cross the border to reach South Africa."

"Some young people come here and find no one they know, and sell themselves. They catch AIDS and die. I have buried many myself whose bodies were returned to Zimbabwe."

Joyce Dube of the Johannesburg-based Southern African Women's Institute of Migration Affairs, a non-governmental organisation, told IPS that the grouping receives between 50 and 200 Zimbabwean newcomers everyday.

"These figures only account for those who come to us to seek assistance. Other organisations also receive refugees from Zimbabwe every day," she said.

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