Has the military taken over?

TODAY, the Zimbabwe Independent takes the unusual step of publishing a special edition focused entirely on the case of incarcerated Standard editor Mark Chavunduka. His fate has in many ways become tied up with that of the nation. Are we a society governed by the law, or a lawless society where politicians and their allies in the public service, the police and the military do what they like?

It is a moot point. President Mugabe dines out abroad as the head of a democratic state. Zimbabwe is a law-based society, he tells investment conferences.

The chasm between his claims and the reality is now obvious for all to see. Zimbabwe remains a crude dictatorship where Mugabe's ministers and officials hold the law in contempt. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than Thursday's statement by permanent secretary in the Ministry of Defence, Job Whabira. Served with a judicial order to release Chavunduka, he responded that "the judge cannot direct us".

It would be fair to say this is a view that permeates all the upper echelons of the government and Zanu PF.

The president, the Minister of Defence, the Attorney-General and the police commissioner were all aware this week that the military policemen who detained Chavunduka were acting out-side the law and in egregious violation of Chavunduka's civil liberties. When called to remove military policemen occupying the Standard's offices an assistant police commissioner said he had no jurisdiction over the military. This was an appalling abdication of responsibility by the police. Here is one of the highest ranking officers in the police who has no idea that the military are not authorised to detain or harass civilians in time of peace; that the police on the other hand have a clear obligation to defend citizens of this country in all circumstances and protect their rights which are enshrined in the constitution.

All those donor-funded seminars teaching the police elementary human rights law appear to have been a waste of time and financial resources. The police cannot be relied on to do their duty.

In a sense the Standard got it right. There has been a coup - a successful one. The party and its friends in the military have set aside the constitution and now rule outside the law. The president's November edict - issued from the former royal palace of the Louvre in Paris where he was attending a Franco-African summit - banning protests that have a political dimension, was almost certainly in violation of the rights to assembly and free expression set out in the constitu-tion.

The government appears to be running scared. The war in the Congo hasn't turned out to be the triumphal parade Mugabe hoped for. And the middle-level officer corps, in many respects more politically educated and thoughtful than we often give them credit for, has begun to express its disenchantment with a campaign that consumes lives and resources on behalf of a corrupt dictatorship in Kinshasa. Far from buying the government's line that it is fulfilling regional responsibilities in propping up Laurent Kabila, the international community holds Zimbabwe responsible for spreading the conflict.

That is why the Standard story exposed a raw nerve. Set against last year's unprecedented popular protests against economic mismanagement and growing public disillusionment with Mugabe's refusal to mend his ways, the government is evidently rattled.

The refusal of the public to swallow the mind-insulting communiqués from the Ministry of Information attempting to throw dust in people's eyes about the progress of the Congo war or responsibility for the economic crisis at home has only compounded the state's predicament.

The tightening of the screws within the state media and the clumsy move against Chavunduka reflect the growing paranoia at the top.

Needless to say none of this will go away. We have a crisis of governance.

Despite the energetic attempts of the IMF to get the government to stop spending more than it earns - largely on itself - and to proceed by way of due process on land reform, the president and his ministers in their public pronouncements have sought to demonstrate they will continue to do all those things that undermine confidence in the country's economic management and imperil the dollar. Locking up outspoken journalists could not have been more calculated to compound the image of a rogue state.

Is this really the Zimbabwe the government wants the world to see?

The government must learn that Press freedom and the rule of law are not taps that can be turned on or off according to whether individual politicians like what is being said about them or their pet projects on the day in question.

A vigorous Press is here to stay. And so long as Zimbabwe's rulers continue to steal from the poor to enrich themselves, engage in futile and expensive wars on behalf of fellow despots, and sabotage the economic prospects of ordinary Zimbabweans because they fear that good governance is tantamount to surrender, it is likely to be a hostile Press. The sooner they get used to it the better.