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Mugabe woos voters with laptops
Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR)
(Africa Reports: Zimbabwe Elections No 20, 25-Mar-05)
By *Chipo Sithole in Harare
March 25, 2005

President doles out expensive computers as he campaigns around the country, in clear violation of electoral rules.

President Robert Mugabe is campaigning across the length and breadth of Zimbabwe accompanied by three Air Force helicopters packed with more than 100 million US dollars worth of state-of-the-art Hewlett Packard laptop computers.

Depending on the size of the community, the president doles out between ten and one hundred computers at each stop on the election trail.

Schools are the main beneficiaries - many of which have been without electricity, textbooks and even roofs for many years.

The money to buy the computers - enough to have imported nearly a million tonnes of staple maize for a country experiencing widespread crop failure and hunger - and to fuel the helicopters has come from state coffers in a clear violation of electoral rules forbidding competing parties from using government funds to contest elections.

Asked about rules in Britain for use of government property during election periods, a political officer at the British embassy in Harare, told an IWPR reporter, "In Britain, if the prime minister is accompanied by the air force during his campaigns, his party must reimburse the funds."

Schoolchildren are being forced to attend many of Mugabe's "computer rallies". Pupils at Harare's Tafara High School and Primary School were last week made to stand for seven hours under baking sun waiting for the president to arrive with his computer-laden helicopters. Instead of being organised by their teachers, the Tafara pupils were marshalled by Mugabe's personal stormtroopers, the notoriously violent National Youth Militia, known as the "Green Bombers" after the colour of their uniforms.

Aaron Mpofu, whose son is a pupil at Tafara Primary, complained bitterly about the use of children in the election campaign. "Our children went to school at 8 am and were not allowed to leave the school grounds by youth militia manning the gates," he said. "They spent the whole day hungry, but the president came only after 3 pm. For young children to spend the day under such conditions is unacceptable."

Moses Nguna, teacher at Mutoko Secondary School, in a remote rural area in the northeast of the country, said the "computer rallies" were testimony to how out of touch Mugabe is with the parlous state of affairs in the state school system.

"If this is not mere electioneering, then it is a classical case of misplaced priorities," said Nguna. "At our school a class of 45 children shares a single textbook, which has to be read to the class by the teacher. There are no desks, so children either sit on the floor or on home-made stools.

"We have no electricity and we cannot even dream of science laboratories. So, you tell me, what use would be a computer to our students?"

Fungai Chigahuyo, 18, is a former pupil of Vumbunu Secondary School, in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands. Five years ago, just before Zimbabwe's last parliamentary elections, the ruling ZANU PF party gave five computers to the school.

"But today I do not know how to use a computer," said Chigahuyo. "The computers were there but we could not use them because there is no electricity at the school.

"I failed my O-level exams and now I am stuck here in the countryside with no work. I failed because we did not have the most basic things to help us with out learning, things like textbooks and ballpoint pens."

Macdonald Maungazani, an executive member of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, the main teaching union whose members have been heavily persecuted by Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party, said, "What schools most badly need are textbooks. Without them, pupils cannot pass exams. They also need an end to violence by the police and Green Bombers so that teachers do not run away from rural areas and seek other work in towns.

"There is no student who is going to use computers productively to pass O-levels when basic resources such as electricity are lacking."

Mugabe's wife, Grace, also got in on the computer act last week. She invited university and technical college administrators to State House in Harare and handed them 255 laptops.

Meanwhile, the country's court system, clogged with a backlog of cases going back years, is hampered by a complete lack of computers. Clerks process documents on elderly typewriters whose keys stick and ribbons loosen.

"All these files on my desk contain documents that need retyping," said Nolahla Sithole, a clerk in Bulawayo Magistrates' Court, with a sweep of the hand at the old and dusty files piling up around her desk. "We are supposed to be five people doing this work, but we are only two and our typewriters are old and virtually useless. Never mind a computer, just an old fashioned electric typewriter would make my life a lot easier."

*Chipo Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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