HARARE, ZIMBABWE (AP) - Zimbabweans celebrated their first Independence Day under a coalition government Saturday, with President Robert Mugabe calling for national conciliation as he shared the stage with his former political rival.
As on past anniversaries, the military paraded and fighter planes flew over the main stadium in the capital, Harare.
But this year’s proceedings were “indeed unique,” Mugabe told the crowd of about 40,000, “giving us the opportunity to celebrate as one family.”
It was a markedly different Independence Day message from Mugabe, who has held onto power for three decades by jailing and beating political opponents, but now needs to convince the world he can work with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in order to secure desperately needed development aid.
The coalition partners have pledged to work together to confront crippling poverty, collapsed utilities and chronic shortages of food and basic goods. But their union has gotten off to a rocky start, with Tsvangirai supporters still jailed and thugs from Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party continuing to seize land from white farmers.
Mugabe has been Zimbabwe’s president since the country’s 1980 independence from Britain, and has used past Independence Day events to flaunt his party’s stranglehold on power.
The state broadcaster prefaced this year’s ceremony, however, with an interview with a top Tsvangirai aide _ and admonitions to Zimbabweans to leave their party T-shirts at home.
“I call on all Zimbabweans to dedicate themselves on this sacred day to national unity and reconciliation,” the 85-year-old Mugabe told the crowd.
“We need to create an environment of tolerance,” he said. “It also means an end to these instances of violence that have caused untold harm to individuals and communities.”
Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has been blamed on a land redistribution campaign that Mugabe began in 2000. The number of white farmers has dropped from about 4,000 to 400, and farms have ended up in the hands of Mugabe cronies.
Mugabe, however, blames Western sanctions for his country’s woes.
On Saturday, he repeated calls for sanctions to be dropped. The U.S. and other major Western donors have kept targeted sanctions _ chiefly travel and banking bans on Mugabe and his top aides _ and have yet to respond to the unity government’s pleas for financial help. The donors are waiting to see if the unity government will be able to control ZANU-PF hardliners.
In a statement Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised reform efforts so far, and encouraged Zimbabwe’s “government to continue those important steps as it works for a more promising future for Zimbabwe.”
The State Department has lifted a travel advisory that warned Americans against visiting Zimbabwe, but cautioned that the political situation in the African nation remains unpredictable and could quickly deteriorate.
Finance Minister Tendai Biti, the top Tsvangirai aide interviewed on state TV Saturday, acknowledged “toxic issues” divided members of the coalition government. But he was upbeat.
“I have no doubt in my mind … we will turn around the economy,” he said.
Since taking over the Finance Ministry, Biti has announced a series of measures to stabilize an economy shattered by years of political turmoil. He has abandoned the local currency and made hard currencies _ mainly the U.S. dollar and the South African rand _ the nation’s legal tender.
Inflation in the local currency had reached hundreds of millions percent. According to the state statistical office, prices in hard currency dropped last month by 3 percent. But food prices are still about double the cost in neighboring South Africa, the supplier of most imports.
A few garbage trucks have reappeared to clear mountains of trash, overgrown grass has been cut along highways and gaping potholes have been patched up on some streets.
But Douglas Mhandu, who earns $185 a month as a handyman in Harare, isn’t impressed. On trip this week to his rural home in eastern Zimbabwe, Mhandu saw few communities along the route with any hard currency at all. He said his family members have taken to bartering cattle, chickens, goats and private possessions for corn, other staples and soap. A relative traded his last chicken for a pail of corn kernels, he said.
“I don’t know what we’ll do next. It’s a very big worry,” Mhandu said.
About 7 million Zimbabweans, or two-thirds of the population, are receiving international food aid.
This month Mugabe seized control of half the information technology ministry held by Tsvangirai’s party. It appears that his party had realized it had given up the ministry that handles e-mail and other surveillance.
Lovemore Madhuku, an attorney and constitutional reform activist, said the coalition has made little progress in pushing through democratic reforms and restoring human rights and law and order.
He said lawmakers of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change also showed “unseemly haste” in claiming cars and other government perks.
Madhuku said Tsvangirai was under pressure.
“If he can’t deliver, there may be unrest in the country the coalition will not be able to contain,” Madhuku said.