Robert Mugabe and Biti appeal for US$5bn

Harare – The beleaguered Zimbabwean strongman President Robert Mugabe and a longtime opposition leader-turned-finance minister Tendai Biti made an unusual joint appeal Thursday for $5bn in international aid to revive Zimbabwe's shattered economy.

The two men presented an economic recovery program that scraps stringent price controls that fueled black marketeering and inflation. It also sets up "safety nets and social protection for vulnerable groups exposed to market forces," Finance Minister Tendai Biti said, without offering details.

The longtime opponents disagreed, however, over the causes of the country’s economic meltdown.

Biti said that Zimbabwe had to do its part by restoring democratic freedoms and the rule of law. He said a new wave of seizures of white-owned farms in recent weeks blamed on Mugabe loyalists must stop.

"For the economy to turn around, we need to have good governance. Our politics must be right," he told business leaders and government officials at the presentation in Harare. "We are asking our international friends to help us."

Mugabe said economic recovery required foreign aid and the removal of Western economic sanctions he deemed "inhuman, cruel and unwarranted".

"We wish to appeal to all those countries which wish us to succeed to support our national endeavor. Friends of Zimbabwe, please come to our aid," he said. "I appeal for the removal of your sanctions which are inhuman, cruel and unwarranted."

Britain, the former colonial power, the European Union and the United States insist their official sanctions – imposing travel and visa restrictions on Mugabe and more than 200 of his party leaders, government officials and loyalists – have little bearing on the economic crisis.

Some whites have been driven from their properties and homes and farm equipment have been looted since Mugabe ordered an often violent land redistribution campaign in 2000. The former regional breadbasket now faces chronic shortages of food, gasoline, most basic goods, power and water supplies and by far the world’s highest rate of inflation.

International donors are already helping Zimbabwe cope with hunger and cholera crises. But, suspicious of Mugabe, they have hesitated to pour in development aid until they see that Biti’s party has real authority.

Security for farmers

In addition, the global financial crisis is likely to dampen the response. Last month, Biti appealed to Zimbabwe’s neighbors in the Southern African Development Community for $2bn. The bloc, whose members have been hard-hit by the global economic downturn, promised to help, but put off writing a check until an as-yet unscheduled regional summit on Zimbabwe.

Private farming organisations say that militants aided by police and troops have targeted at least 100 of some 400 farms remaining in the hands of white farmers this year.

Farmers "must be given security on their land and a chance to grow their crops," Biti said on Thursday.

The finance minister presented a budget to parliament Wednesday that sharply cut a $1.7bn interim budget proposal by Mugabe’s party in January. Biti called the $1bn plan a "reality budget," saying Zimbabwe has to live within its means.

Mugabe signed a power sharing deal with Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change September 15 after disputed elections earlier that year. After protracted negotiations on the allocation of key government ministries, the coalition was sworn in last month with Mugabe, in power since independence in 1980, remaining president and Tsvangirai taking the new post of prime minister.

Deputy Prime Minister Thokozani Khupe stood in for Tsvangirai at Thursday’s gathering. Tsvangirai is recuperating in South Africa from injuries in a car accident that killed his wife of 31 years, Susan, on March 6. He is expected to return in the next few days, officials of his party said.

– Sapa-AP