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Divisions In Zimbabwe Cabinet As Police Extend Price-Cut Campaign

Divisions were said to be emerging Thursday within the Zimbabwean government over its scorched-earth offensive against high prices, even as stage agents enforcing price cuts extended operations to rural areas and impounded commuter omnibuses.

Government sources said Trade Minister Obert Mpofu, directing the operation, was at loggerheads with Labor Minister Nicholas Goche, who argued that price monitoring should be carried out under the Tripartite Negotiating Forum which he chairs. The forum brings together government, business and labor representatives.

Legal experts, meanwhile, said Mpofu had violated the Incomes Act barring members of Parliament from setting prices. The office of the attorney general was also feuding with Home Affairs Ministry, complaining that the charges which police have brought against business people were murky, in some cases refusing to prosecute.

Ruling party sources said parliamentarians of the ruling ZANU-PF party challenged Mpofu to explain the logic of the price-rollback operation, citing mounting shortages of staple foods and complaining that lawmakers had never been consulted.

Consumers say they are running out of food and that replenishing stocks is difficult as they rise early in the morning or buy at exorbitant prices on the black market.

Economist Godfrey Kanyenze, representative of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in the three-way economic forum and on the Price and Incomes Commission created in recent months, told reporter Blessing Zulu that labor as well as business have become confused by conflicting positions within the government.

While politicians wrangled, police pursued the price crackdown, impounding scores of buses in Harare and Bulawayo whose operators were alleged to have overcharged. Operators in response grounded their fleets – leaving commuters stranded.

Police extended the blitz against hyperinflation to rural areas, leading to hoarding of basic items in the countryside and the closure of many small shops.

State agents raided branches of large retailer Makro in Bulawayo and Harare, causing pandemonium as customers rushed to buy goods reduced in price by 50%.

A Makro manager in Bulawayo, speaking on condition that he not be named, said the police riot squad had to be called in to prevent a serious disturbance.

Correspondent Safari Njema reported from Harare that as the government tightened controls, residents encountered problems due to market chaos and uncertainty.

In a related development, the National Association of Non-Governmental Organizations said it had received reports that the government raided warehouses belonging to two member organizations that were accused of hoarding.

Industry Minister Obert Mpofu had earlier charged that NGOs were hoarding food so they could distribute it at election time in an effort to topple the government.

Sources close to the developments said that authorities raided a Care International warehouse in Masvingo and a World Vision warehouse in Harare, seizing food.

However, Care Country Director Stephen Vaughan said the organization’s facilities had not been raided and that such actions were unnecessary because Care operated in a transparent and nonpartisan manner regardless of the election schedule.

A World Vision official declined to comment on the government accusation of hoarding.

Sources said NGOs are afraid to speak out for fear Harare will revoke their licenses to operate, preventing them from carrying out food distribution and other activities.

Spokesman Fambai Ngirande of the National Association of Non-Governmental Organizations told reporter Jonga Kandemiiri that the government allegations and actions were intended to curtail the operations of NGO's distributing food.

The seeming irrationality of the state offensive against high prices has led to the proliferation of theories on why Harare has in effect crippled the economy.

One is that the blitz is meant to divert public attention from the forthcoming national elections. Proponents of this theory note that the war on high prices coincided with the beginning in late June of voter registration which runs through August 17.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network noted that registration is a yearly event, but takes on greater importance with local, general and presidential elections looming.

Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition National Coordinator Jacob Mafume told reporter Carole Gombakomba that his organization is worried about the impact of the government's single-minded price-cutting campaign on the country’s electoral process.

Zimbabwe Election Support Network Vice Chairwoman Irene Petras said most people are dedicating many of their waking hours to the search for food and other essential items such as fuel at a time when it is critical that they register to vote.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...