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Scoop Link: Zimbabwe Protests

By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 2, 2000; Page A17

HARARE, Zimbabwe –– As the country that he once led unravels, Ian Smith seethes.

A fuel shortage produces clots of cars circling city streets, waiting in line for hours for their turn at the gas pump. The currency crashed last year, reducing the value of the Zimbabwean dollar to less than a nickel. A quarter of the population is infected with AIDS, nearly half the work force is jobless, and thousands of black peasants have illegally occupied more than 700 farms since February, demanding that white commercial farmers surrender the land.

Yet the governing party appears not to care. Smith's successor and rival, President Robert Mugabe, has not withdrawn the 11,000 troops he sent last year to fight in an unpopular civil war in neighboring Congo despite constituents' criticism that Zimbabwe cannot afford it. In March, he ignored a court order to remove the farm squatters, and his agriculture minister went on trial for lining his pockets while thousands go hungry.

"This country has never seen such lawlessness and corruption," Smith said. "Blacks come up to me all the time and say that they were better off when I was prime minister. We had a fine country then, a strong economy that was the jewel of Africa. The Zim dollar was worth almost two [U.S. dollars] and our blacks were the happiest in the world. I was proud to be called a Rhodesian," he said. "I must say I am considerably less proud to be called a Zimbabwean."

Stooped and gray-haired, this larger-than-life icon is a slightly built man who turns 81 this month. But if age has slowed him down a bit, it has not smoothed any of his sharp edges. Smith announced his return to active politics last month, 20 years after he was ousted as the last white ruler of the British colony known as Rhodesia.

Smith leads a new political alliance that will challenge Mugabe's party in parliamentary elections this year, and he has said he will run for one of the 150 seats if asked.

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