ZIMBABWE: China loan for new military university

China has loaned Zimbabwe US$98 million to establish of a military university after the African country mortgaged its diamonds to service the credit facility. But the move to set up the training institution is proving controversial.

On Tuesday President Robert Mugabe said in a televised speech that the National Defence College, which will eventually have university status, will become the army's highest institution of academic and military instruction.

The country's top military brass had wanted to name the institution after Mugabe, but he dismissed the suggestion.

Zimbabwean lawmakers ratified the loan deal in June despite widespread misgivings about the project, with some legislators saying it was not a priority in a cash-strapped country.

In a statement to the House of Assembly, Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa told legislators that construction of the military institution would be completed in a year.

He added that it would begin operation as the National Defence College, affiliated to the University of Zimbabwe.

Accreditation by the country's top university would "lay a solid foundation for the subsequent development of the institution to a fully fledged National Defence and Security University, tentatively by 2016," said Mnangagwa.

"This university will also act as a think-tank for providing research on military, defence and national security for the National Security Council, Ministry of Defence and other government organisations. It will also conduct seminars and workshops to coordinate national security issues. It will publish commissioned research, as done in most Commonwealth countries."

The college would admit members of the armed forces as well as civilians. People from selected Southern Africa Development Community states and other countries would be invited to subscribe to courses, in an effort to ensure interaction and cross-fertilisation of ideas from people of varied backgrounds.

After his speech to parliament, Mnangagwa tabled the loan agreement with the Chinese. The deal has a repayment grace period of seven years, with interest of 2% per annum and the loan requiring repayment over 13 years, with payments being made twice a year.

The agreement states if there is any change of laws or government policies in Zimbabwe that makes it difficult for either party to perform its obligations, China can declare all the sums payable to be due immediately.

Proceeds from diamond sales from the country's controversial Chiadzwa fields, where human rights groups have accused the security forces of looting and committing atrocities, would be used for loan repayments.

The agreement gives Chinese materials and goods preference during the construction stage. It names a Chinese state construction company, Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group Corp, as the entity that will construct the university as a part shareholder with the Zimbabwean government, at one of the mines that will be used to repay the loan.

Mnangagwa said the university was now 50% complete after the Chinese decided to begin construction out of their own "generosity".

The latest Chinese loan to Zimbabwe comes a year after the Asian giant extended a credit facility to Malawi for the construction of a science university.

In a parliamentary debate on the project Elias Mudzuri, a former mayor of Harare and now a lawmaker representing Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party, said a military university was not a priority for Zimbabwe, considering other pressing national issues.

He added that Zimbabwean soldiers, the majority of whom earn US$200 per month, were starving; the first priority should be to increase their salaries.

Mudzuri also said the University of Zimbabwe offered a diploma in war and strategic studies, which the country could make do with while addressing other priorities. And he argued that the university could prove to be dangerous for national stability, given Zimbabwean soldiers' appetite for committing atrocities in order to prop up the Mugabe regime.

"We are saying: Are we not oiling the machinery that is going to ruin us? Are we not sharpening the axe that is going to be used to chop our heads off?"

Mudzuri's fears may not be misplaced. Zimbabwe's army has undertaken dirty work for Mugabe since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980. In the 1980s its North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade massacred an estimated 20,000 people.

Under talks that are being facilitated by South African President Jacob Zuma, the MDC has demanded security-sector reforms as part of a roadmap leading to the holding of undisputed polls. Mugabe has opposed the moves.