Mugabe is still the boss – Reality finally checks-in with the Prime Minister

This recent incident illustrates the sort of obstacles Morgan Tsvangirai faces daily.

Senior members of a leading civic organization, the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), were blocked from meeting Prime Minister Tsvangirai by Mugabe’s security agents. The president and prime minister share offices in the same building. The NCA delegation had been due to discuss issues of constitutional reform with Tsvangirai, who is one of three principal party leaders heading the government of national unity.

Only the intervention of Deputy Prime Minister Thokozani Khupe eventually secured the group’s entry.

Last week a vehicle in Tsvangirai’s convoy was denied entry to Mugabe’s official residence, where a state dinner was being held for a visiting North Korean delegation. Tsvangirai drove off saying he had better things to do after guards at State House refused to admit a vehicle in his convoy.

Of course, the entire visit of the North Koreans was controversial. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) enjoys widespread support in southern Zimbabwe, known as Matabeleland, where Mugabe unleashed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in a campaign of political retribution in which an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people were killed in the mid-1980s.

To welcome the North Koreans last week Mugabe praised their support for Zimbabwe and congratulated them on their rocket launch that caused international tension earlier this year.

Mugabe’s speech was, by any standard, provocative and designed to show Tsvangirai who is boss. Mugabe was, at the same time, rebuking the MDC’s international allies, who are looking to Tsvangirai to restore productive relations with Zimbabwe.

These incidents may be dismissed as trivial, but they are examples of how Robert Mugabe is letting everyone know that he is still running the show in Zimbabwe. It is not just in petty security access situations. Mugabe is also calling the shots to jail his critics for lengthy periods on flimsy charges. He is also continuing to harass the small but lively independent press.

From the very start of the power-sharing government, which brought Tsvangirai and his MDC party into a coalition government, critics warned that Mugabe would not cooperate and would tarnish Tsvangirai’s reputation by continuing repressive actions. That is exactly what is happening, especially regarding the rule of law and the press. Mugabe is using his control of the judiciary to jail government critics on spurious charges and to press similarly weak charges against the press.

Mugabe is demonstrating just how obstructive he can be by refusing to remove the loyalist Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono and the equally dedicated Attorney General Johannes Tomana. Those officials protected by him are in no doubt about whose orders they must follow. 

Responding to questions in parliament last week, the co-minister of Home Affairs Giles Mutsekwa revealed that Tomana, not the police, ordered the arrests of two journalists from an independent newspaper. The newspaper had published the names of police and intelligence officers responsible for the abduction and torture of opposition activists last year. The names appeared in court papers and were therefore matters of public record — so there should be no problem in printing them in a newspaper.

Tomana’s office also has refused to grant bail to detainees who have been ordered free by the courts. In nearly every case involving charges against government critics, the state has challenged court rulings to keep people imprisoned for another week, or more, while the government’s appeal to their release is heard. A judge only last week sharply criticized the state for opposing bail in the case of three activists when its legal grounds for doing so were weak.

Meanwhile, media defense organizations have slammed the recent arrest of journalists.

“Zimbabwean journalists continue to be the victims of police brutality and judicial abuses,” said Reporters Without Borders. “By arresting journalists arbitrarily and then conditioning their release on the payment of bail, the police and courts are subjecting the media to a systematic extortion racket. We again appeal to the authorities to stop these practices.”

Mugabe’s grip on the levers of power has placed the MDC in an invidious position. In a bid to placate the prickly Mugabe, Tsvangirai has campaigned for the West to lift sanctions. Although Tsvangirai has also called for an end to criticism of Mugabe, he has been forthright as to where Zimbabwe’s problems lie.

“The continued violations of the rule of law and the Global Political Agreement (which created the power-sharing government) prevent the inflows of development aid, obstructing the legislative agenda, and risk keeping Zimbabwe mired in poverty,” he said recently. “What continues to plague Zimbabwe can best be described as a reluctance to accept the reality of the changes taking place within the country.”

Western donors have made it clear that before they untie their purse strings the new government must end arbitrary arrests and allow a free media.

At a recent conference call to chart a path to media reform, government publicists called for sanctions to be lifted, but they made no mention of the need to stop state arrests of independent journalists, to allow the return of exiled journalists, or to end state controls over the media.

The MDC, frustrated by Mugabe’s persistent stonewalling, has sought the intervention of the regional organization, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which is the guarantor of the Zimbabwe settlement.

Tsvangirai, in a remarkable display of self-criticism, said over the weekend he “totally agreed with the decision because they (his party) feel we have been dragging our feet in solving the outstanding issues.”

Tsvangirai specifically mentioned the “unexplained arrests.”

The MDC’s move to bring SADC back into the fray is an admission of the failure to gain cooperation with Mugabe and his party, Zanu-PF.

Meanwhile, civil society and much of the independent media will be biting its collective tongue. It is tempting, but would not be helpful, to say “told you so."

More GlobalPost dispatches on Zimbabwe: