Tsvangirai formally declines Robert Mugabe invitation

HARARE – The Zimbabwean Prime Minister-designated , Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai on Wednesday formally declined an invitation by the country's strongman Robert Mugabe to be sworn into that office, a party spokesman said.

In another development MDC is said to be planning to abandon unit talks altogether and suspend engagement with the "conniving rogue" SADC leadership, particulary South Africa, where former President, Thabo Mbeki still wields power despite his recent sacking. 

Tsvangirai had not been expected to accept the invitation proffered by Robert Mugabe, who has been trying for months to launch a national unity government but whose ZANU-PF party has been deadlocked over the same period with Tsvangirai’s MDC formation. The rival MDC formation of Arthur Mutambara is more favorable to joining such a government.

Mugabe sent the formal invitation to Tsvangirai recently in the context of an urgent call by South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, chairman of the Southern African Development Community, for Zimbabwe’s political leaders to establish the unity government contemplated under a Sept. 15 power-sharing agreement to address an acute humanitarian crisis.

A cholera epidemic has claimed more than 1,550 lives in recent months, and hunger looms in early 2009 for many Zimbabweans given the scarcity and high cost of food in the country and the limited resources presently available to the World Food Program and other agencies.

Spokesman Nelson Chamisa of Tsvangirai’s MDC formation told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA’s Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that it is not for Robert Mugabe to invite the MDC formation to join a government as that government is to be jointly constituted under the pact.

ZANU-PF Chief Parliamentary Whip Joram Gumbo accused the MDC of failing to respect the intent of the power-sharing agreement, and of seeking to bypass the judicial process in demanding the release of MDC activists jailed on charges they plotted a coup.

A source close to MDC high ranking officials revealed that MDC is close to cutting ties with Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF and there are reports that they also want to stop any form of cooporation with SADC leaders whom they accuse of violating the September global agreement".

Last week The Movement for Democratic Change accused the move by South African government as "legitimising the illegal regime that is in de facto control of Zimbabwe".

In a decision which could put an end to months of on-off negotiations to establish a coalition government in Zimbabwe, a magistrate on Wednesday ruled that 16 human rights campaigners and opposition supporters must remain in custody pending a Supreme Court hearing of their case.

Prominent human rights campaigner Jestina Mukoko and 15 others are charged with recruiting people to undergo military training in Botswana with the aim of toppling President Robert Mugabe’s government. If convicted they could face the death penalty.

Last week a High Court judge ruled that the detainees be transferred to a hospital for medical treatment, but government lawyers are challenging his ruling and police have refused to obey the order to take the prisoners to hospital.

The police were supported on Wednesday when at a brief hearing in Harare magistrate Mishrod Guvamombe said "This matter remains to be decided in the Supreme Court and the accused cannot be released." Two other activists facing lesser charges were freed.

The decision could have far-reaching political consequences because three weeks ago opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai gave an ultimatum that he would break off coalition talks with President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party if appropriate legal procedures were not followed by December 31.

Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change is deeply divided over the issue of whether to participate in the unity government agreed in September.

In recent days party opinion appears to have hardened against the deal, largely because numerous actions by the Mugabe government cast doubt on its sincerity.

These include the abductions of more than 30 opposition supporters and human rights campaigners, only some of whom have been brought to court, the charging of five MDC officials on counts of terrorism and sabotage, including the head of the party’s security department and a senior adviser to Mr Tsvangirai, the re-appointment of the unpopular governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Gideon Gono, and the repeated use of the security forces against opposition and civil rights groups.

If he sticks to his word, Mr Tsvangirai will abandon the talks, but he is under intense pressure from the South African government, which is desperate for a deal that would leave Mr Mugabe in effective control.

The opposition leader also has a long record of flip-flopping on key issues, issuing numerous threats and ultimatums and then backing away from them.

Were the opposition to withdraw from the talks, President Mugabe has said he would call fresh elections which neither party wants and the outcome of which would not be recognised internationally.

Mr Tsvangirai, who has been out of the country for the last 10 weeks is understood to be considering returning, now that the Zimbabwe authorities have issued him a new passport, but there are serious concerns that he could be arrested, or worse, should he fly back to Harare.

He is under pressure also to agree to the deal because of the rapidly worsening humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe with the World Health Organisation estimating that 1608 people have does from the cholera epidemic afflicting the country. The WHO warned this week that the situation could get worse in the weeks ahead.