Mozambique threatens to switch off Zimbabwe

By Edith Kaseke

HARARE - Mozambique said yesterday it could be forced to eventually switch off Zimbabwe for defaulting on electricity payments amounting to US$55 million for supplies although Maputo sympathised with President Robert Mugabe's government which is gripped by a serious economic crisis.

Zimbabwe has battled to raise money for power imports from its neighbours due to biting foreign currency shortages, which are part of a bigger economic downturn that has pushed inflation to above 2 200 percent and unemployment at more than 80 percent.

Mozambique's two power concerns Electricidade de Mozambique (EDM) and Cahora Bassa supply more than 300 megawatts of electricity to Zimbabwe. Imports from Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Democratic Republic of the Congo meet 40 percent of Zimbabwe's electricity demand.

The statement by Mozambique came as ZESA Holdings tried to ease concerns over its decision to divert most electricity to winter wheat production, which would leave households facing massive power cuts.

"We understand Zimbabwe's situation as of now, but we want them to pay because we should be using the money to fund other local projects, we want to see the debt paid," Adelino Muchanga, spokesman for EDM said.

A Zimbabwe government notice published on Wednesday announced a new power cut programme as the struggling ZESA battles to shift supplies to irrigate the winter wheat crop in the face of increasing food shortages.

The southern African country is experiencing frequent power cuts due to the declining capacity of its ageing power plants and serious shortages of foreign exchange which have hit imports.

Zimbabwe requires US$2 billion for new equipment and to expand production at the country's two main power plants and ease shortages that have also affected industrial production and contributed to the economic crisis.

Critics blame the economic crisis on repression and wrong policies by Mugabe such as his seizure of productive farms from whites for redistribution to landless blacks.

Failure by the government to provide resources and skills training for black villagers resettled on white farms saw agricultural production plummeting by about 30 percent, causing food shortages and also crippling an economy built on farming.

Mugabe, in power since Zimbabwe's 1980 independence from Britain, however denies mismanaging the economy and blames his country's problems on Western sanctions.