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Walking on empty - Zimbabwe fuel crisis

Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader joined tens of thousands of commuters walking to work on Friday amid a deepening fuel crisis which is slowly paralyzing the southern African country.
Opposition Movement For Democratic Change leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, second from right, makes a 75 minute walk to work in Harare, on Friday to protest fuel shortages that have crippled Zimbabwe's transport system.
Opposition Movement For Democratic Change leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, second from right, makes a 75 minute walk to work in Harare, on Friday to protest fuel shortages that have crippled Zimbabwe's transport system. AP
/ Source: Reuters

Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader joined tens of thousands of commuters walking to work on Friday amid a deepening fuel crisis which is slowly paralyzing the southern African country.

Zimbabwe has seen erratic fuel supplies since 1999 due to foreign currency shortages that are part of a wider economic meltdown critics blame on mismanagement by President Robert Mugabe, the country’s sole leader since independence in 1980.

Buses and commuter taxis have largely stopped running their routes, forcing people to walk sometimes long distances to get to and from work.

Enough is enough
In the latest sign of the crunch — which has worsened in recent months with most gas stations dry for weeks — the official Herald newspaper reported on Friday that prison officers had failed to drive prisoners to court the previous day because they had no fuel.

Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai drew stares as he joined other pedestrians on Friday in trekking to his office in Harare’s central business district, saying his car tank was also empty.

“I think the people of Zimbabwe have endured this abuse for a long time. I am urging Zimbabweans that we cannot continue to endure this,” Tsvangirai told journalists as he began the nearly four mile walk from his suburban home with his bodyguards.

Mugabe’s cash-strapped government — estranged from key western donors over its controversial seizures of white-owned farms and allegations of rigging elections — opened fuel imports a few years ago, ending a monopoly formerly enjoyed by state firm NOCZIM.

But private oil industry operators complain that retail prices set by the authorities are far below regional levels and undermine their viability.

The small trickle of fuel coming into the country has found its way to a thriving black market where it is selling at twice the official price.

Fuel prices hurt
Last week, the government doubled fuel prices for the second time in about 10 weeks — a move analysts said merely hurts commuters already grappling with soaring living costs.

Zimbabwe now has unemployment of over 70 percent, one of the world’s highest rates of inflation and food shortages due to drought and what critics say are disruptions to agriculture linked to the farm seizures.

“The government must realize that it has turned Zimbabwe to what it is today,” a visibly breathless Tsvangirai said as he walked into the MDC offices. “It is very simple, where a government has failed to provide for its citizens...it just should step down, step aside, resign.”

On Friday the private weekly Zimbabwe Independent newspaper said the central bank was negotiating a fuel deal with a finance house from neighboring South Africa, with Harare’s export receipts to Pretoria to be used as security.

Reserve Bank officials were not immediately reachable for comment, while in Johannesburg bank officials said they would not comment “on specific transactions.”

The 81-year-old Mugabe denies he has mismanaged the economy and says the MDC is a puppet of western countries he charges have sabotaged Zimbabwe’s wealth over the land reforms Harare argues were necessary to correct ownership imbalances created by British colonialism.