Britain expresses willingness to support Zimbabwe recovery

The British Prime Minister told the his Zimbabwean counterpart, Morgan Tsvangirai, that the national unity government must pass a series of stringent tests to allow international donors to treat it as an “ordinary country”, and step up efforts to secure the long-term recovery of the ravaged Zimbabwean economy.

Key measures include the immediate release of political prisoners; moves towards greater freedom of the press; the opening of talks with the International Monetary Fund and other bodies about an economic recovery plan; and a “road map” towards fresh elections.  

Mr Tsvangirai was in South Africa yesterday to discuss a recovery package for his country. He said that Zimbabwe would need US$5bn (£3.5bn) to help to repair its battered economy.

The Zimbabwean power-sharing government was formed last week after months of deadlock between President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

But fears that Mr Mugabe’s “hard men” are trying to wreck the agreement appeared to be confirmed last week when Roy Bennett, Mr Tsvangirai’s nominee to be the deputy agriculture minister, and expected to be one of two white men in the cabinet, was arrested.

Aid workers have warned that immediate action is needed to stem the spread of disease, halt food shortages and prevent further collapse of the economy. The number of people hit by the cholera epidemic will soon reach 100,000 in a country where, according to the UN, 20 per cent of the adult population has HIV. The average life expectancy is only 35 years.

There are also warnings that the country will face a major food shortage within months unless urgent action is taken to stabilise the economy. One British aid official said: “Zimbabwe is badly broken now. It will get considerably worse if there is not very rapid progress. If the fundamentals are not sorted out things will go down very, very quickly.” Britain is the largest supplier of aid to Zimbabwe with a £49m programme delivered through the United Nations and local groups, and is to send medical supplies into the country to tackle the cholera epidemic.

Britain and other donor countries have made it clear they will respond to future humanitarian needs in Zimbabwe. But British ministers have also indicated that they need a commitment to reform in Harare. Mr Brown has told MPs that he informed Mr Tsvangirai that “until the government of Zimbabwe could convince us that there were going to be free and fair elections, and at the same time that there was going to be the removal of repressive legislation, including the release of political prisoners, until these things happen we could not treat Zimbabwe as if it was an ordinary country.”

He also said that “obviously we would want to see humanitarian aid getting to people who are in the distressed position that, for example, the terrible cholera outbreak has caused”. The Prime Minister added: “I hope there will be considerable pressure by the international community to release political prisoners, to get in a credible team to deal with the finances and to have a clear road map to the next elections that will take place in Zimbabwe. These will be the indicators of change that we will be looking for and I fear that President Mugabe will still stand in the way of these changes.”

The International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander, said: “We hope the new government will bring an end to the country’s spiralling decline but words must now be turned into action.

“The UK stands ready to offer further assistance but we must first see a change in the policies and actions of the government. The situation for millions of ordinary Zimbabweans remains desperate and that is why we remain determined to do everything we can to improve their lives.”

The price of aid: Brown’s conditions

1. Release political prisoners

Morgan Tsvangirai stipulated in a speech after his inauguration that he wanted the immediate release of all political prisoners. But even as the ceremony was under way, Roy Bennett, who was due to be sworn in as his deputy agriculture minister, was arrested on terrorism and weapons charges. Contrary to a condition of the power-sharing deal, Mr Bennett is one of 40 political detainees still being held.

2. Press freedom

For the past seven years, tough laws have barred foreign journalists from working permanently in the country and imposed state permits on local journalists. Campaigners are putting pressure on the unity government to guarantee press freedom.

3. Open talks with the IMF

The inflation rate, last officially estimated at 231 million per cent, has left the Zimbabwean dollar worthless. Mr Tsvangirai is asking foreign donors for $50m in hard currency a month for six months to pay civil servants who have been on strike.

4. “Road map” to fresh elections

Mr Tsvangirai’s orders are already being contradicted by Mr Mugabe. It has been difficult to re-establish the rule of law in a split cabinet where Mr Tsvangirai’s ministers are outnumbered by Mr Mugabe’s party 16 to 13. The Independent (UK)