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Hope dashed fast

by Jennifer Dube
On February 11, former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s new prime minister. This marked the partial fulfillment of the power-sharing deal sealed with authoritarian President Robert Mugabe in September, agreed to after Tsvangirai’s party had won parliamentary elections and he himself had come out first in the first round of presidential elections, only to drop out of the second round in view of violence perpetrated by Mugabe supporters. The road to real democracy remains long, however, as events revealed soon after Tsvangirai’s inauguration. [ By Jennifer Dube ]

To ordinary Zimbabweans, the constitution of an inclusive government seemed to signal an imminent end to political intolerance, economic strife and widespread human-rights abuses, phenomena all too common under Presi­dent Robert Mugabe and the administration run by his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANUPF).

The new government, people hoped, would set an end to food shortages and the cholera epidemic (see essay by Anne Jung on page 118). Also on the wish list was that industries, currently operating at below
20 % of capacity, would scale up operations and reduce the unemployment rate of currently 95 %. That this would not happen over night was obvious.

In the meantime, however, many have begun to fear that the bloated new government of 71 ministers, deputy ministers and provincial governors will strain national resources, while achieving little. Only 48 hours after Tsvangirai was sworn in, his designated deputy minister of agriculture, Roy Bennett, was arrested. Tsvangirai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), says that charges of terrorism, sabotage and banditry were trumped up against its leader’s close ally. Indeed, Bennett spent the past years in exile in South Africa because of such unsubstantiated charges. He only returned to Zimbabwe for his swearing-in.

His arrest cast a dark shadow over the yet unfolding coalition. Sadly, it was not the first one. Since the Tsvangirai-Mugabe agreement in September, more than 30 MDC supporters and human-rights activists were arrested. All are still languishing in prison, even though the new prime minister has announced he would negotiate their immediate release.

In the meantime, there are reports of politically motivated violence in some rural areas. MDC supporters in Mutoko and Bindura allegedly attacked and injured ZANU PF supporters, declaring it was “pay-back time”. Some MDC supporters want Mugabe to be held accountable for campaign-related violence that killed more than 1,000 MDC supporters last year.

Farmers’ organisations had hoped that the new government would end property-rights abuses. But in late February, they reported that Mugabe’s cronies had seized another 40 farms or so from the country’s few remaining white farmers. Tsvangirai had always campaigned against these seizures.

Tsvangirai and Mugabe, of course, have pledged to bury the hatchet and champion the national interest. Most Zimbabweans agree that a unity government is not – and never was – a perfect solution. Nonetheless, it should be workable. Many hope that the leaders will eventually learn to cooperate.

They are watching cautiously as Tsvangirai and ministers from his party, especially Finance Minister Tendai Biti, try to correct some of Mugabe’s mistakes. For instance, Tsvangirai went to South Africa to discuss a bailout package, which he estimated to be about $ 5 billion. Some regional banks have since contacted Zimbabwe’s central bank to assess what they can do. The 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) has promised to assist the new government, and so has the African Union (AU). So far, those are only words. The international community has pledged support too – but only if the unity government is successfully implemented.

The government is expected to last at least two years before fresh elections are conducted under a new constitution. Zimbabweans hope that it will manage to improve the nation’s condition in spite of the many challenges it faces. Many find it depressing that Mugabe’s pledges to co-operate with rivals, in the light of recent events, now seem even less credible than before Tsvangirai’s swearing-in.