ON June 6th Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s prime minister, set off on a three-week red-carpet tour of Europe and America, to meet Barack Obama. It is the former opposition leader’s first official trip abroad since taking his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) into a fraught power-sharing deal with President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF in February. He wants to present a friendlier, more respectable face of a country widely regarded as a pariah, in the hope of winning international support for the unity government. A formidable task.
The new government has been in office for nearly four months, yet most of the conditions laid down by foreign governments for resuming aid to bankrupt Zimbabwe remain unmet. The rule of law and human rights are still being violated with impunity. The security services, secret police and media remain in Zanu-PF’s grip. Political campaigners, lawyers and journalists are still being arrested on trumped-up charges. Farms still owned by whites are being invaded at an even greater pace. And the despotic 85-year-old president still calls the shots in what is supposed to be a partnership of equals.
From the outset, Mr Mugabe and his party hardliners have been bent on scuppering a deal imposed on them by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a 15-country regional group, taking every opportunity to thwart and humiliate Mr Tsvangirai and his MDC ministers. They are especially determined to block a key part of the deal: the drafting of a new constitution, the first since independence in 1980, designed to impose clear checks on executive power and to lead to proper elections within two years.
Under the power-sharing arrangement, the MDC—which, let it not be forgotten, actually won the elections in March last year—was supposed to get 13 of the agreed 31 Cabinet posts and Zanu-PF 15, with the remaining three going to an MDC splinter led by Arthur Mutambara. But on the day the new ministers were to be sworn in, Mr Mugabe, who had already seized the beefiest ministries, grabbed a whole bunch more, increasing the number of cabinet posts to 41 in violation of the agreement signed by all three parties in September. Mr Tsvangirai was powerless to stop him; SADC, the pact’s guarantor, was silent.
Mr Mugabe still treats the agreement and his prime minister with contempt. Mr Tsvangirai recently announced that journalists were now free to report on Zimbabwe without government approval, yet he was promptly contradicted by the information minister, a Zanu-PF man, who said that journalists without proper accreditation could face up to two years in jail. After months of negotiations, Mr Tsvangirai at last secured the release of human-rights activists and MDC sympathisers who had been detained, and many tortured, on treason charges. But a few weeks later they were rearrested.
Under their power-sharing pact, Messrs Tsvangirai and Mugabe are meant “to consult and agree” on all senior government appointments. Until now, Mr Mugabe has simply ignored that part of the deal. But on May 21st Mr Tsvangirai proudly announced that agreement had been reached on the appointment of permanent secretaries (the top civil servants) in every ministry. The appointment of the first MDC provincial governors and ambassadors had also been agreed to. They were to be sworn in “at the soonest possible opportunity”, along with Roy Bennett, a dispossessed white farmer, whom Mr Mugabe has hitherto steadfastly refused to accept on the ground that he was facing charges of “treason”. Just as it looked as if Mr Tsvangirai might have scored his first win in a behind-the-scenes power struggle with Mr Mugabe, it turned out that all the current permanent secretaries had been reappointed, whereas no deadline had been set for swearing in the MDC’s new governors and ambassadors or Mr Bennett; now out on bail after more than a month in jail, he says he is not expecting to take up his post any time soon.
Another contentious issue is Mr Mugabe’s appointment of Johannes Tomana as attorney-general and his reappointment of Gideon Gono as governor of the central bank to another five-year term. It was Mr Gono who presided over the collapse of Zimbabwe’s once-flourishing economy while plundering the bank’s resources to finance Mr Mugabe and his Zanu-PF friends. Though lesser known, Mr Tomana, who has been responsible for all arrests and prosecutions, may well be the more dangerous of the two.
He just won’t go
The more Mr Mugabe has been pressed to get rid of those two men, the deeper he has dug in his heels. For the first time since the unity government was set up, Mr Tsvangirai has asked SADC to intervene. He hopes that Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s new president who currently chairs SADC, will squeeze Mr Mugabe a lot harder than did Thabo Mbeki, his predecessor. Messrs Tsvangirai and Zuma are said to be friendly, whereas the Zimbabwean never got on with Mr Mbeki, whom he suspected of siding with Mr Mugabe.
Another source of friction in the new government is the control of the security forces. In accordance with the power-sharing deal, a new National Security Council, including Mr Tsvangirai, has been set up. It was supposed to replace the notorious Joint Operations Command (JOC), which embraced all the security and intelligence chiefs and was chaired by Emmerson Mnangagwa, the ruthless defence minister. But the JOC has never been disbanded and the new security council has yet to meet. As on other matters, Mr Tsvangirai seems powerless to act.
It is a dangerous situation. Mr Mnangagwa, who oversaw the massacres of alleged “dissidents” in Matabeleland in the early 1980s, is one of the most powerful people in the land, with high hopes of taking over from Mr Mugabe one day. He reportedly heads a shady group known as the Social Revolutionary Council, involving security chiefs and other ZANU-PF toughs bent on saving their skins as well as their lavish perks of office, who are plotting the downfall of the unity government, almost certainly with Mr Mugabe’s approval and possible direction. The old man, whose mind seems as sharp as ever, shows no sign of being willing to retire.
Rumours are now circulating that he may call a snap general election in March, before the new constitution, with its planned limits on presidential power and strict rules for the conduct of elections, can be approved. Zanu-PF leaders have reportedly been telling their supporters to prepare for such a poll, which would be sure to plunge the country back into a state of violence and anarchy. This would upset the South Africans, who are due to host the football World Cup a few months later. So MDC leaders are hoping Mr Zuma will persuade his hitherto spineless SADC colleagues to stop such a move—if they can.
Hints of improvement
Despite all this, MDC leaders are surprisingly optimistic. They are used to Mr Mugabe’s wiles and are determined to outwit him. Given their own inexperience and Zanu-PF’s 29 years in power, their slow start was inevitable, they say. But they feel they are gradually learning to outflank their enemy. “We don’t have guns, but we have the support of the people,” says an MDC minister. “In government, we’ve also got access to intelligence sources for the first time. That is invaluable.”
The MDC’s success is clearest on the economic front. Hyperinflation, which reached a world-record 500 billion per cent in September, is under control thanks to the government’s acceptance of the American dollar and a handful of other foreign currencies as legal tender in place of Zimbabwe’s worthless currency. Prices have even fallen since the beginning of the year. After nine years of recession and a 54% drop in GDP, the IMF says Zimbabwe may grow by 2.8% this year. Tendai Biti, the MDC finance minister, is forecasting 6%.
But the bankrupt state is still struggling to make ends meet. Mr Biti says Zimbabwe needs $8.5 billion (a figure that seems to have been pulled out of a hat) in the next three years to kick-start the moribund economy. Despite Mr Mugabe’s constant complaint about crippling Western sanctions, his country is actually getting nearly $1 billion a year in humanitarian aid. Now donors are beginning to find ways to channel money to government projects where the MDC is in charge, to prevent the cash falling into Zanu-PF’s hands. For the first time in nearly a decade the World Bank and IMF have agreed to provide non-budgetary support.
For ordinary Zimbabweans, life has begun to get a bit better, too. Thanks to the government’s decision to give an allowance of $100 a month to all civil servants (including government ministers), schools and hospitals have started to reopen. Food is back on supermarket shelves—for those who can afford it. Potholes in Zimbabwe’s bumpy roads have begun to be filled in.
But otherwise things are much as they were. Electricity still often cuts out, sometimes for days on end. An estimated 95% of the population is still without formal jobs. A cholera epidemic, which has killed more than 4,300 people, may have abated but the water and sanitation systems are as decrepit as ever. Meanwhile, HIV-AIDS continues to claim some 3,000 lives a week.
Yet, against all the odds, there is a new feeling of hope. Mr Mugabe’s secret police are still everywhere, but the fear has gone. People are willing to speak out more freely. Demonstrations and MDC rallies are no longer met with the same violence. Foreign investors are sniffing around. But neither they nor international donors will put big money back into Zimbabwe until they can be sure that property rights and the rule of law are being respected. That, plainly, could still take some time.