Zimbabwe's split personality

On Feb. 11, bitter rivals President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai joined the same government, which more than three months later presents a political version of a split personality in which one part of the government does one thing and the other does the opposite.

"This is a schizophrenic government — it takes one step in one direction and then it goes in the opposite way," said one Harare analyst. "No sooner does Morgan Tsvangirai say one thing than Robert Mugabe contradicts him. This is at the top but this conflicting pattern is repeated at all levels of government."

Nothing more clearly illustrates the dichotomy in Zimbabwe’s political leadership than  statements emanating from the "government of national unity" over the past week.

Last week Tsvangirai held a press conference to announce a breakthrough in talks with Mugabe on the impasse between the two main parties, Mugabe’s Zanu–PF and Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), as well as the smaller branch of the MDC headed by Arthur Mutambara.

The inertia of the government is illustrated by the fact that it took nearly four months of negotiations for the leaders to agree that they would share the appointments of provincial governors and senior diplomats. Mugabe also agreed that the MDC’s Roy Bennett would be sworn in to office as deputy minister of agriculture, something the president had strenuously refused to do for months. 

But even this new agreement left unresolved the crucial appointments of the head of the central bank and the attorney general. Both incumbents are highly partisan supporters of Mugabe who were appointed to office despite an agreement last September stipulating that all senior appointments in government should be agreed on among the three principals.

The bipolar nature of this coalition government was highlighted just a few days after Tsvangirai’s announcement of the hard-won compromises when an unrecalcitrant Mugabe said he would not budge on the appointsment of the central bank director and the attorney general.

Faced with a continuing lack of cooperation, Tsvangirai appealed to the 15-nation regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to arbitrate in the dispute over the two outstanding posts.

The agreement, announced last week by Tsvangirai, revealed a further chasm between the two main parties. The state-run media declined to carry a single word of Tsvangirai’s statement the next day, presumably because it reflected concessions made to the MDC. Only on Sunday did a sanitized version of the agreement appear in the state press. 

Ironically, also missing from the state’s coverage of Tsvangirai’s comments was his claim that there had been “significant improvements in media freedoms” in the country. He cited amendments to Zimbabwe’s repressive press law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which as a result of amendments last year no longer carried the requirement that journalists and media houses register with a state-appointed regulatory body, the Media and Information Commission. That was now defunct, Tsvangirai pointed out.

But the media ministry, controlled by Zanu-PF loyalist Webster Shamu, announced that any journalist visiting Zimbabwe to cover the forthcoming summit of another regional trade body, Comesa, should first register with the commission.

In other words, the government, desperately short of foreign exchange, will use a moribund body with no legal standing to fleece visiting journalists.

The permanent secretary in the media ministry, George Charamba, told parliament that the government was “engaging” the BBC and CNN to cover events in Zimbabwe. CNN had never been banned, he pointed out. The network had excluded itself by expressing solidarity with the BBC, he claimed. And without any sense of irony as one of the regime’s most vituperative spoksmen, Charamba said “the country needs to shed the negative image of the past.”

“The negative image has been because of the political situation and this has been dealt with through the inclusive government,” he said.

Shamu last week congratulated the government media for providing “editorial balance and sensitivity” in its coverage of national affairs following complaints from the MDC.

His remarks appeared the same day that the main state-owned publication, the Herald, carried stories headed “West’s double-talk rears ugly head,” “Sanctions the priority,” and letters to the editor saying Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono “cannot go before sanctions are lifted.”

It is evident from all this that Mugabe and his acolytes regard the inclusive government as a means to secure the lifting of sanctions and injection of foreign funding prior to another election in which the government press will once again act as cheerleaders for Mugabe who shows no sign of standing down.

Despite agreements that land seizures would stop, Mugabe’s supporters have continued to invade farms still occupied by about 150 white farmers. Army officers and policemen are joining in, according to the Commercial Farmers Union. The new occupants are reaping summer crops they did not sow, after the owners were prevented from harvesting them, said the farmers union. Many farmers have gone into hiding as the attorney general’s office seeks to prosecute as many as possible for remaining on their farms.

“How can we as a country that has vast tracts of under-utilised land continue to persecute Zimbabwe citizens for trying to produce both foreign currency and food for the nation when the three signatories to the GPA (Global Political Agreement, which formed the coalition government) agreed to ensure security of tenure for all land-holders,” asked CFU president Trevor Gifford.

As it marks its first 100 days in office, things don’t look particularly rosy for the coalition government.

“Mugabe’s malign influence hovers over every facet of national life,” a civic activist who asked not to be named said this week. “His dark shadow casts a wide circumference.”