Zimbabwe Threatens to Expel Western Diplomats
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. Zimbabwe's brutal crackdown on political opponents has been condemned around the world. Western diplomats have harshly criticized President Robert Mugabe's administration over the arrest and beating of political activists. The government has responded by threatening to expel ambassadors suspected of aiding the opposition. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, and she joins us now. Ofeibea, what sparked the government's threat to expel diplomats?
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Well, we're told that President Robert Mugabe told his foreign minister to read the riot act to the foreign diplomats and envoys because they had been helping the opposition, had taken food and water and succor to those who were allegedly beaten by police about 10 days ago during an opposition rally that turned ugly.
And the foreign minister said that this went against the Vienna Convention, that meddling in Zimbabwe's affairs, internal affairs, would not be tolerated and that any foreign diplomat deemed to be doing so would be thrown out.
NORRIS: You mentioned this opposition rally that turned ugly. Remind us, if you will, of the events that actually led up to - I guess we could call it diplomatic showdown.
QUIST-ARCTON: Well, there was meant to be a peaceful prayer meeting held by the opposition. The government said it was banned, and that it was the opposition that had instigated the violence, the police crackdown. And many opposition supporters, including opposition leaders, ended up in hospital after being in police custody.
Some of them had head injuries. Some, we're told, even suspected skull fractures. Some had huge black eyes. Some had broken limbs. And this is when the ambassadors went to see them.
The tension has been rising because - the opposition says because of misguided government polices, Zimbabwe is in crisis. The government says that the opposition are simply shameless stooges of the West and that the West -including Britain, the former colonial power - and even the United States are trying to topple President Mugabe's government.
NORRIS: Ofeibea, how strong is Zimbabwe's political opposition?
QUIST-ARCTON: It depends where you are in the country. Here in the capital, Harare, it's very much an opposition stronghold. And it's a very politicized society here, so full support for the Movement of Democratic Change, as it's called. But if you go into the rural areas, President Mugabe - who's 83 now, a veteran leader, a leader of Zimbabwe's independence struggle - is seen very much of a hero. He's seen as somebody who liberated Zimbabwe from white colonial rule.
So it depends where you are in the country, and the government is saying don't listen to the international media. Don't listen to biased coverage. Talk to real Zimbabweans. Those who say this is an end of an era for Mugabe, this is the endgame, are talking through their hat. They don't know what's happening in this country.
NORRIS: Ofeibea, can you give us a sense of what life is like for the average Zimbabwean in a country with so much unrest and where the inflation rate is nearing 2,000 percent?
QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed, it's pretty tough. Just Monday, I was in a taxi, and he was saying in the morning, he'd gone to buy gas. By the evening, the price had gone up. The average Zimbabwean will tell you there are things to buy in the shops, but they can't afford them, that their salary, their pay, their wages, don't even correspond to the cost of living.
And many people say the reason why Zimbabwe has gone downhill is because of the land reform program instituted by President Robert Mugabe. Now the commercial farm - and agriculture is a huge part of the economy here in Zimbabwe - was mainly by white farmers. But about seven years ago, the government decided that black ownership of land was important, and there were these seizures of white, commercial farms. And since then, the economy has gone plummeting.
Agricultural production is down. Zimbabwe, which was the breadbasket of Southern Africa, is now having to import food. And just today, the government has said officially there is a drought in Zimbabwe, so that's going to mean even less agricultural production and more importation of food, and, of course, prices going up that Zimbabweans already say they can't afford.
NORRIS: Ofeibea, thank you very much.
QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.
NORRIS: That was Ofeibea Quist-Arcton speaking to us from the Zimbabwe capital, Harare.
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