Zimbabwe leaders match wits in power struggle

JOHANNESBURG — Two weeks after Zimbabwe’s opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was sworn in as prime minister and joined President Robert Mugabe in governing, the archrivals are openly matching wits and wiles in a struggle to dominate the political landscape of a country whose people endure hunger, cholera and political repression.\r\n

A senior official in Mr. Tsvangirai’s party, Eddie Cross, wrote recently that this contest is playing out “building by building, street by street, close combat between two forces.”

So far, Mr. Mugabe and hardliners in his party, ZANU-PF, have remained true to form, ruthlessly claiming the prerogatives of power. But Mr. Tsvangirai and key opposition ministers — especially for finance and education — have shown a willingness to confront them and seize the initiative where they can.

Mr. Mugabe, the 85-year-old patriarch who vowed during the election last year that only God could unseat him after nearly three decades in office, made a typically daring power grab on Wednesday through the state media that is still his mouthpiece. He had The Herald post a list of the senior civil servants he had unilaterally picked to head each ministry, something expressly forbidden in the power-sharing agreement he and Mr. Tsvangirai signed.

Within hours, Mr. Tsvangirai, who is supposed to manage the day-to-day operations of the government, called a news conference in Harare and issued a statement saying the move violated the agreement, declaring it “null and void.”

But their skirmishes have sprawled far beyond the halls of government. Even as Mr. Tsvangirai has vowed to restore the rule of law, militias associated with Mr. Mugabe’s party have sought to take over white-owned farms, though a regional tribunal of judges recently ruled the owners are entitled to keep their land under the terms of a treaty that Zimbabwe and other southern African nations have adopted.

The violent, chaotic seizure of thousands of white-owned farms from 2000 to 2003 helped destroy Zimbabwe’s commercial farming sector and contributed to the collapse of food production, economists say.

Mr. Tsvangirai said on Wednesday that a new waive of illegal land seizures must stop and told the ministers of home affairs — one from his party, one from Mr. Mugabe’s — to “bring the full weight of the law down on the perpetrators.”

But Mr. Tsvangirai has made the same demands privately to Mr. Mugabe and so far the shared control of the Home Ministry and the police force it oversees has evidently left Mr. Tsvangirai unable to exert control.

On Wednesday, Mike Campbell, the farmer who originally challenged the government’s seizure of his farm in the regional tribunal and won — though only after he and his wife were viciously beaten during a land invasion in June — found his farm, Mount Carmel in Chegutu, again under threat. A group of invaders associated with a powerful ZANU-PF official who wants his land came demanding he leave.

Mr. Campbell, 76, and his wife, Angela, 66, departed for Harare, but their son Bruce and son-in-law Ben Freeth stayed on to guard the place. Mr. Freeth said in a telephone interview that the family had requested police protection in the afternoon, but by evening none was forthcoming.

“We will try to sort out anything that comes,” said Mr. Freeth, whose skull and ribs were fractured during the attack by invaders in June.

Mr. Tsvangirai has also failed to win the release of human rights and political activists who have been abducted by state security agents. Even Roy Bennett, a white farmer and one of his closest allies, and his choice to be deputy agriculture minister, remains in a fetid, overcrowded prison cell in the eastern city of Mutare on what the opposition says are trumped up terrorism charges. Mr. Tsvangirai has personally guaranteed he will appear in court and though a judge Tuesday ordered his release on bail.

But Mr. Tsvangirai and his combative finance minister, Tendai Biti, have managed to come up with enough money to give each soldier, policeman, teacher and civil servant an allowance of $100 in foreign currency. The army has been plagued with desertions and most schools in the country have ceased to function because hyperinflation has made teachers’ salaries so worthless they don’t even cover bus fare to work. 

Mr. Tsvangirai, who had announced his intentions to pay public employees in foreign currency in his inaugural address, has begun to show the civil service that he will try to deliver for them, Western diplomats say.

Over the past two weeks, a raft of opposition politicians who have been perennial outsiders have suddenly found themselves on the inside — and confronting the rot that has hollowed out Zimbabwe’s public services.

David Coltart, the new education minister who belongs to a splinter faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, described arriving at the 18-story education ministry building in Harare for his first day on the job and finding women civil servants in office attire with buckets of water balanced on their heads, waiting for the elevator. The building has had no water for four months — and they had become water carriers so they and their co-workers could flush the filthy toilets.

Two million of Zimbabwe’s three million school children are now out of the classroom, Mr. Coltart reckons. And this week, he convinced the teachers to go back to work, though they have gotten only the token $100 for the month of February, with no guarantees for the future. Mr. Coltart made a passionate plea to western donor nations for tens of millions of dollars in aid — an appeal that Western diplomats say they will not answer until Zimbabwe shows it is taking steps to restore the rule of law and adopt sensible economic policies.

Nonetheless, leaders of the two main teacher unions said in interviews on Wednesday that they are convinced of Mr. Coltart’s sincerity — and have asked the 62,000 teachers they represent to go back to work.

“We are banking on the hope and trust that the minister will deliver on the promises that have been made,” said Tendai Chikowore, leader of the Zimbabwe Teachers Association.

For now, Mr. Tsvangirai finds himself caught between Mr. Mugabe and highly skeptical donors who have deep pockets, but are leery of reaching into them until they believe Mr. Tsvangirai can deliver change.

Mr. Tsvangirai again Wednesday said the new government must quickly replace the Reserve Bank Governor, Gideon Gono, whose hyperactive printing of Zimbabwean dollars has driven the inflation rate to crazy heights, and Attorney General Johannes Tomana, a Mugabe loyalist whose prosecutors have kept Mr. Bennett and other activists locked up.

He also acknowledged the uphill battle ahead, saying “we still have a long way to travel until we are truly free, democratic and prosperous.” SOURCE: New York Times