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Zimbabwe's Ruling Party Tightens Grip on Power

New laws on land alarm white farmers, abolish recourse to courts

MANY Zimbabweans heaved a sigh of relief late last year when President Robert Mugabe said he did not intend to legislate a one-party state. But critics say recent constitutional amendments have confirmed their concerns that a de facto one-party state can be as dangerous as a legislated one.

Armed with its sweeping new powers, the government:

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Can acquire land owned by whites and redistribute it.

Has endorsed the death penalty.

Gave the Education Ministry tighter control over the country's only university.

``Having failed in the one-party issue, the government is seeking to corral all the power it can by emasculating opposition or pressure groups,'' says Mike Auret, of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, a human rights monitoring group in Zimbabwe.

All the signs ``are that the government is not prepared to accept criticism in any form,'' adds Kempton Makamure, University of Zimbabwe law faculty dean.

In general elections in March, which were marred by charges of intimidation, the country's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union won 117 out of the 120 seats in the House of Assembly. Despite this overwhelming majority, Mr. Mugabe still said he wanted to abolish opposition parties. But he bowed to pressure from members of his Cabinet, who pointed to the growing trend toward multiparty democracy in other African countries.

Before independence in 1980, 5,000 white commercial farmers owned the best land in the country (then known as Rhodesia), while peasant farmers crowded into the rest. At independence, the government agreed to buy back land for resettlement at market prices. Only one-third of the peasants have been resettled. Aid promised by Western donors to help buy land did not materialize.

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The government now says it intends to acquire half of the remaining white farmland on its own terms. One of the new amendments to the Constitution, passed in December, allows the government to fix the price of land and abolishes the right of farmers to challenge the acquisitions in court.

These provisions have sparked an outcry from the country's commercial farmers, who account for a large proportion of Zimbabwe's economic production. The Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and Africa Watch, a United States-based human rights group, have also protested.

About 4,000 white farmers recently aired their grievances before Minister of Agriculture Witness Mangwende, who left them with little doubt of the government's commitment.

``While it may not be the intention of government to use these powers in an unreasonable and disruptive way now,'' the farmers said in a statement, ``they remain enshrined in the Constitution and may be used at some future date.'' Rarely before, they said, ``has constitutional protection from deprivation of property been rendered of so little value.''

Abolishing recourse to the courts ``flies in the face of all accepted norms of modern society and the rule of law,'' recently retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Enoch Dumbutshena said. The bill will have ``a marked negative effect on future foreign investment,'' he predicted.

Also causing alarm are amendments, passed along with the land provisions, which legalize corporal punishment and endorse the death penalty.

According to a legal expert here, the government does not particularly care for either measure. The main motivation, the expert says, was to assert its power over the judiciary.

The effect of the measures, says Mr. Auret of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, is much deeper than might immediately be apparent.

``For the legislature to cut down the scope of a fundamental right, after it has been defined by the judiciary, or even before the judiciary has exercised its judgment, establishes a dangerous precedent.'' Auret said.

The passage of the University of Zimbabwe Amendment Act late last year, giving the government greater powers over the school, dealt a serious blow to the autonomy of the country's only university. The university was closed for the first time a year and a half ago, after students demonstrated against corrupt officials. Since then, both students and staff have come out in favor of a multiparty political system.

David Karimanzira, minister of higher education, defended the act, saying it was necessary to maintain order at the university.

According to Mr. Makamure, the law's purpose is to strengthen the ruling party's de facto one-party state.

``In the absence of an effective opposition,'' the dean said, ``the university remained the democratic conscience of the nation. The government wants to effectively end that role.''

Opening the High and Supreme Courts for 1991 recently, Zimbabwe's new Chief Justice A.R. Gubbay strongly criticized the constitutional amendments, and hinted at a battle ahead when he said that the judiciary has the power to nullify any law that contradicts ``certain fundamental principles.''

``Zimbabweans are not satisfied with a nominal multiparty system. They want a democratic process that works,'' says Auret.

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