Robert Mugabe vows to retain discredited officials

In an interview with the state Herald newspaper to mark his 85th birthday, Mugabe refused to cede to demands by the Movement for Democratic Change to dismiss central bank governor Gideon Gono and attorney general Johannes Tomana.

"I don’t see any reason why those people should go and they will not go," he said in the interview. Gono is widely blamed for Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown and hyperinflation of 231 million percent, and Tomana stands accused of blocking the release of political prisoners.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s request for a $2bn loan to salvage its collapsed economy and infrastructure was expected to dominate a two-day conference of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Cape Town, South Africa.

South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel told South African radio that Zimbabwe wanted about $1bn to kick start retail and other sectors, and the rest to help reopen schools and restore health and municipal services.

An estimated two-thirds of Zimbabweans are in need of food aid and a cholera epidemic has sickened more than 80 000 people and killed more than 3 800 since August.

‘This has to be fixed’

But South Africa has only limited resources to help its troubled neighbour, as it is heading into recession. Other southern African countries are also reeling from the global economic downturn, and there is scepticism about how Zimbabwe would use the money.

The head of the African Development Bank, Donald Kaberuka, said Zimbabwe also must settle its existing debt before it could expect huge foreign aid.

"It is important not to jump off the bridge before there is enough water under it," he told reporters in Cape Town. He said Harare owed the African Development Bank nearly $460m. "That has to be fixed before we do anything else," he said.

He said Zimbabwe’s debt to the international community was about $5bn and by next year would be closer to $6bn.

"What is owed to the international financial institutions must be settled in advance, before we move in. That can be done fairly quickly. It is complex, but it’s not undoable," Kaberuka said.

Uncertainty heightened

Zimbabwean Finance Minister Tendai Biti, a leader of the former opposition, headed the country’s large delegation seeking to convince other SADC countries of Zimbabwe’s commitment to economic reform.

But there are doubts about how much control Biti and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai will have over the nation’s finances given the power of central bank chief Gono, who was reappointed last year by Mugabe for a second five-year term in office.

Uncertainty has been heightened by an upsurge in reported "invasions" of white-owned farms. Mike Campbell, one of 78 white farmers who petitioned a regional court to overturn farm eviction laws, left his farm for security reasons on Wednesday after they were threatened by a group led by a nephew of a longtime Mugabe loyalist.

The militants gave Campbell 10 minutes to pack and leave his house, said his son-in-law Ben Freeth.

"They said they did not care about the law or the police," Freeth said.

Justice for Agriculture, a farmers’ support group, has reported at least 40 of the nation’s few remaining white farmers have been forced off their land since January.

Increasing pressure

Tsvangirai on Wednesday cited the campaign against farms as evidence of continuing lawlessness. He faces increasing pressure from his supporters, who say it was a mistake to agree to govern alongside Mugabe.

Tsvangirai and Mugabe were expected to meet on Thursday to discuss the Movement for Democratic Change’s concerns about the continued detention of a senior party member Roy Bennett and other political prisoners. On Wednesday, Tsvangirai said Mugabe had agreed to free political prisoners, but the attorney general was "wilfully obstructing" releases.

Tsvangirai is also angry at Mugabe’s unilateral nomination of his cronies for senior civil service posts. Under the unity government deal, senior government appointments are to be made by the president and the prime minister together.