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* Government says Western sanctions behind economic crisis
* Zimbabwe should tackle corruption, reforms, West says
* Mnangagwa declares public holiday for anti-sanction march
By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Supporters of the Zimbabwe government marched in the capital on Friday denouncing Western sanctions that President Emmerson Mnangagwa says have sapped the economy, but his opponents stayed away, accusing him of trying to distract attention from his failings.
Mnangagwa has struggled to unify the country since taking over from the late Robert Mugabe, ousted in a coup in 2017.
Hopes of swift recovery have faded as the economy grapples with its worst crisis in a decade, marked by 18-hour daily power cuts and shortages of foreign exchange, fuel and medicines.
Mnangagwa, like Mugabe, blames sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union nearly two decades ago for the country’s economic ills.
Led by Mnangagwa’s wife Auxillia, about 7,000 government supporters bussed from across Zimbabwe marched for 5 km to the national stadium in Harare.
Singing and dancing, they waved placards inscribed “No sanctions, no discrimination, sanctions new version of slavery,” and “Enough is enough, remove sanctions now.”
“We have no jobs because of the sanctions. America wants to remove ZANU-PF from power through sanctions but we will defend the party and our president,” said 32-year-old Martin Mafusire.
Mnangagwa declared Friday a public holiday and was expected to address the marchers at the stadium, where a soccer match between Zimbabwe’s biggest teams was due to be followed by a concert.
The EU and United States imposed financial and travel bans on ZANU-PF and top military figures from 2001 for alleged human rights abuses and electoral fraud. The government says the measures are punishment for its seizures of white-owned farms.
ZANU-PF supporters condemn the sanctions while the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change says they are not the cause of the country’s economic crisis.
The regional Southern African Development Community has rallied behind Zimbabwe’s call for an end to sanctions.
While the government ran documentaries and articles in the official press criticising sanctions, the U.S. and EU embassies took to social media to rebut the official narrative.
U.S. Ambassador Brian Nichols wrote an article in a private newspaper on Thursday saying “the greatest sanctions on Zimbabwe are the limitations that the country places on itself”.
He said the United States remained the biggest donor to Zimbabwe but corruption and lack of reform had dragged down the economy.
The EU now only keeps sanctions on Mugabe and his wife Grace and Zimbabwe Defence Industries.
Harare says the U.S. sanctions have been the most devastating. These bar U.S. officials at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank from voting for debt relief or fresh lending for Zimbabwe.
In March, President Donald Trump extended by one year sanctions against 141 entities and individuals in Zimbabwe, including Mnangagwa. (Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Giles Elgood)