Tsvangirai walks the tightrope

OPINION – Morgan Tsvangirai could finally be winning over Zimbabwe's hardline army generals, but he may have to risk this new-found détente by proposing army reforms and pressing for the names of the killers of hundreds of his supporters to be published.

On the eve of the past two presidential elections, the army top brass publicly vowed never to salute Tsvangirai even if he won the poll. Although none of them publicly commented on the unity government, they were widely viewed as "residual elements" — Tsvangirai’s phrase — opposed to reform.

But on Tuesday, in a packed stadium to mark Defence Forces Day, Tsvangirai finally got his salute from the generals.

A meeting between Tsvangirai and the army top brass late last month had "broken the ice" and the army generals now recognise the prime minister, his spokesperson, James Maridadi, said on Tuesday.

"We hope this marks the beginning of a good working relationship," Maridadi said.

President Robert Mugabe said his generals were behind the unity government: "The defence forces support the inclusive government, because it was born out of the wishes of the people of Zimbabwe, whom the soldiers serve every day in their course of duty."

But Tsvangirai now faces a dilemma; a plan to reform the defence forces may reverse the progress he appears to have made in reaching out to the powerful military.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has put forward new proposals it says will increase the independence of the security forces. It wants an "overhaul" of the military, according to spokesperson Nelson Chamisa, "so that they serve the interests of the nation above those of any political party".

Under the proposal, the defence forces commission, which oversees appointments to senior army positions, would be "overhauled so that a new board with independent and qualified members be appointed in consultation with commanders of the Zimbabwe National Army and the Air Force of Zimbabwe. It should be the responsibility of this commission to review and oversee senior appointments and promotions, as well as general working conditions and salaries of all personnel."

Tsvangirai, under pressure to find justice for victims of last year’s election-related violence, also faces pressure on how to deal with a dossier prepared by his party listing the names of supporters killed in violence, in which the army is said to have been involved.

Many in his party want the report published as part of a "national healing" exercise, but this could stoke tensions with the army and his Zanu-PF partners in government.

Tsvangirai is finding it increasingly tough to balance pressure for more comprehensive reforms and the need to gain the confidence of elements that remain opposed to the unity ­government.

He has appointed a special cabinet committee to lead efforts to heal old wounds before any new election can be held. But at the few meetings the committee has held, victims of violence have demanded justice before reconciliation.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum estimates that 107 people were killed in the violence, in which rights activists and the opposition claim the army played a leading role.

But the MDC’s new report claims that more than 200 supporters were murdered and names senior army officials and top government figures as perpetrators.

Radical MDC officials want the report published and the perpetrators arrested before any real reconciliation can take place. But Tsvangirai is wary of the impact this would have on an already unstable coalition.

Speaking at a recent reconciliation summit, he said although he backed punishment for past crimes, this would have to be extended to crimes committed even during Zimbabwe’s liberation war.

This article was originally published in the M&G