ZIMBABWE: Student protesters arrested and assaulted

Zimbabwean students have staged nationwide demonstrations against President Robert Mugabe's failure to form an all-inclusive government to extricate the country from economic and political crises that have caused educational standards to plummet. Five students were arrested in second city Bulawayo, while in the capital Harare two students were abducted, assaulted and dumped in bush outside the city by suspected state agents.

Protesting students were joined by the National Constitutional Assembly, a pressure group agitating for reform. Among those arrested and tortured were student leaders Usheunesu Nyoni, treasurer of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu), and Kudakwashe Chakabva, president of the student union at Harare Polytechnic.

"We were focusing on the humanitarian crisis - lack of food, cholera, education. We need a government as soon as possible to address the crisis," said Zinasu president Clever Bere.

Legally, there is no government in Harare. Electoral fiascos earlier this year finally led to Mugabe and rival Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai signing an agreement to form a Government of National Unity. But the deal is in jeopardy following Mugabe's insistence on grabbing all key cabinet ministry posts.

The students' demand that an ongoing food crisis - caused by government mismanagement and the Mugabe-directed seizure of white-owned commercial farms - be addressed came ahead of a planned visit to Zimbabwe next week by former United Nations Secretary-General Koffi Annan, former US president Jimmy Carter and Graca Machel, wife of Nelson Mandela.

Mugabe is also failing to curb a cholera outbreak caused by water problems that independent groups say has claimed the lives of more than 200 people. The UN children's fund Unicef sent out cell phone alerts warning people of the outbreak.

Zinasu says the political and economic crises have also resulted in institutions of higher learning churning out "half-baked graduates". Mugabe, however, has remained unfazed, presiding over graduation ceremonies at the University of Zimbabwe and Great Zimbabwe University in the past two weeks.

"It is so disappointing that people like Mugabe have the energy to go to graduations when they did not assist students. It is a fact that these students are half-baked graduates. They are going to be confronted by the misery of unemployment, poverty as soon as they get into the world," said Bere.

In his graduation ceremony address, Professor Obert Maravanyika, Vice-chancellor of Great Zimbabwe University, reminded the aging dictator of the crisis the country was facing: "As I speak, there is an 83% vacancy rate among lecturing staff in the faculty of commerce, 66% in the faculty of sciences, and 48% in the faculty of arts and education," Maravanyika said, adding that vacancy figures in non-academic departments, in middle-management and junior grades, were "equally dire".

In September, all state-controlled higher education institutions failed to resume operations following the mid-year holidays because of a strike by lecturers. A handful, including the University of Zimbabwe, finally opened last week. Student leaders said they would only be able to assess whether lectures were taking place this week.