President Robert Mugabe officially opened the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair in Bulawayo on Friday with an uncharacteristically brief speech whose subdued tone matched the downbeat mood at the fair, much diminished from years past.
Mr. Mugabe repeated his often-made charge that Western sanctions targeting him and members of his inner circle sent the economy into a tailspin. Most economists trace the decline to the crash land reform program launched in 2000 which evicted most white farmers and destabilized agriculture, the linchpin of growth.
Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono, speaking at the trade fair one day earlier, said inflation had reached 2,200% in March. He also effectively devalued the currency by some 98% for exporting businesses and remittances from Zimbabweans abroad.
Sources in the Ministry of Trade said African leaders traditionally called on to open the fair declined Harare’s invitations this year.
Not a single South African company official made the trek north, instead engaging local representative agents, and European companies were totally absent. Just five foreign companies mounted exhibits compared with 90 last year.
The fair boasted 690 domestic exhibitors against 713 in 2006, officials said. The fair’s theme this year is “Zimbabwe brands, African brands, global brands.”
But participants said the event has hit a new low and Friday was turned into a ZANU-PF rally as Trade Minister Obert Mpofu voiced praise of Mr. Mugabe's leadership, trading his history from birth and describing him as a great African visionary.
Mr. Mugabe cited growth in small to medium-sized enterprise participation in the fair as indicating the success of the event and of his black empowerment initiatives.
The president said his“Look East” policy of building ties with China and other Asian partners was helping to relieve the country's economic distress.
"I am pleased to report that significant headway has been made with a number of investment projects that have been funded by China now at various stages of implementation in all the key sectors of the economy," Mr Mugabe said.
Meanwhile, many opposition activists in Bulawayo were in hiding following a two-week crackdown by state agents determined to prevent Mr. Mugabe's opponents from staging a demonstration against his government at the fair.
Groups targeted by the crackdown included the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, the Bulawawo Agenda, Radio Dialogue, Women of Zimbabwe Arise and the Zimbabwe National Students Union, local sources said.
Student activist Tafadzwa Chengewa told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA’s Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that he and a colleague were abducted in Bulawayo late Wednesday by suspected state agents and left in Nyamandlovu, 60 kilometers from the city.
More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe.