IT WAS not a promising start. As soon as the arch-rivals had signed their historic agreement and shaken hands in front of flashing cameras, Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, spoke of reconciliation and a hopeful future. But Robert Mugabe, sounding bitter and almost unhinged, railed against colonial evils, insulted the leader of a neighbouring country, Botswana, and poured vitriol on the American and British governments for their alleged meddling. Mr Tsvangirai put his head in his hands. Many in the audience, at a hotel in Harare, the capital, jeered. Outside, supporters of ZANU-PF, the party that has ruled Zimbabwe under Mr Mugabe’s leadership for 28 years, clashed with members of Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
The document itself, drawn up under the mediating aegis of South Africa’s embattled president, Thabo Mbeki, is riddled with ambiguity, contradictions and vagueness. Above all, it is unclear who is in charge. Nonetheless, whether or not it will create a government that can rescue the country from chaos and division, it marks a massive psychological shift for Zimbabweans. Its biggest achievement is that Mr Mugabe is no longer in sole control—a grievous blow to a party whose leaders had sworn never to let Mr Tsvangirai get a sniff of power and whose militias in the past six months have killed hundreds of supporters of the MDC with impunity. The momentum now favours Mr Tsvangirai. But it could still be reversed.
The key compromise is that Mr Mugabe will remain an executive president and Mr Tsvangirai will become an executive prime minister, rather along the lines of the settlement that ended the bloody crisis that followed Kenya’s election nine months ago. Mr Mugabe will still chair the cabinet, which is supposed to draw up policy; Mr Tsvangirai will preside over a parallel council of ministers, which is meant to implement it. The Joint Operation Command embracing Mr Mugabe’s top security men, which has been virtually running Zimbabwe as the post-election chaos has spread, will be replaced by a National Security Council, in which Mr Tsvangirai will have a seat.
It is unclear who will call the final shots in case of a dispute, though there will be a "Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee", known as JOMIC, drawn from all parties. Most worryingly, there is no outside mechanism to knock heads together in case of deadlock. Mr Mbeki, the nearest thing to it, is suffering from a loss of authority back home (see article).
The composition of the government has yet to be agreed. ZANU-PF will get 15 of the cabinet’s 31 ministries, Mr Tsvangirai’s lot will have 13, and a splinter group of the MDC led by Arthur Mutambara will get three seats—and its boss will be one of two deputy prime ministers. So the combined MDC, which has a history of quarrelling, will have a wafer-thin majority. In any event, cabinet decisions, according to the document, are to be taken by consensus. Mr Mugabe will still appoint ministers, but "in consultation" with Mr Tsvangirai.
It is understood that Mr Tsvangirai will probably get the finance ministry, foreign affairs, the home ministry (crucially to include the police) and the main social-service ministries, while Mr Mugabe will hold on (no less crucially) to the army. It is unclear who will run the feared Central Intelligence Organisation. Mr Mutambara’s faction may get a ministry for legal and constitutional affairs.
The constitution will immediately be amended to accommodate the deal’s provisions; a new one is to be presented within 18 months of the formation of a unity government and then put to a referendum. At that point, the power-sharing government could go on to complete a five-year term or either party could bail out and force a general election. Numerous clauses in the document call for an end to violence and for general harmony and healing.
There is no specific provision for reforming the judiciary, which has lost most of its independence under Mr Mugabe. A number of opposition supporters, including some MDC officials and MPs, are still behind bars or on bail facing charges such as treason. Human-rights groups say that violence perpetrated mainly by ZANU-PF militias is continuing in the countryside; the party’s torture camps have yet to be dismantled. The agreement makes no mention of an amnesty for perpetrators of political violence.
The document says the forcible land acquisitions of the past eight years, which have led to the expulsion of some 5,000 white farmers, who had underpinned the entire economy, are "irreversible"; the "former colonial power", namely Britain, should compensate the ousted farmers and pay for land resettlement. At the same time, it calls for property rights and security of tenure irrespective of race. It also calls for a land audit and for the abolition of multiple farm ownerships; Mr Mugabe’s family is thought to have at least a dozen.
No one knows who’ll be in charge
It is unclear how the deal, with its competing hubs of power, will work in practice or how the cabinet and the ministers’ council will interact. The 84-year-old Mr Mugabe, who has proved adept at outwitting his rivals over three decades, will doubtless seek to neuter the 56-year-old Mr Tsvangirai’s lot. Many remember how expertly he outmanoeuvred the late Joshua Nkomo, who led a rival liberation movement into a previous government of national unity in the 1980s, only to see his party and powers squashed by Mr Mugabe.
Civic organisations and the trade unions, from which Mr Tsvangirai and his MDC emerged, are nervous. But they are warily ready to see how quickly the new prime minister can produce results. As the American ambassador put it, an early simple test will be whether people wearing MDC T-shirts will be able to walk freely down the streets—and in the bush—without fear of assault or even murder by ZANU-PF thugs. Another will be the speed with which Mr Tsvangirai, whose party had previously secured the post of Parliament’s agenda-setting speaker, can abolish the two catch-all laws that have hobbled the media and allowed the police to prevent opposition parties from holding meetings and generally operating freely.
Yet another test will be the ability of foreign charities, especially those providing food and medicine, to operate freely again; a three-month ban on their activities was recently lifted. It also remains to be seen whether foreign journalists, including those working for the BBC, the country’s most listened-to Western broadcaster, will be allowed to work openly.
Will the deal convince foreign governments, global institutions and investors to open their wallets? Inflation is running officially at more than 11m% and probably, in reality, at more than 40m%, with the central bank printing an avalanche of money to cover a massive budget deficit. Last month, it slashed ten zeros from the currency but the rate has already slumped from 30 new Zimbabwean dollars to an American one, to 300 today. The bank says it will let some shops trade in foreign cash; petrol in some stations may also be bought in dollars or rand.
The central bank’s governor, Gideon Gono, one of Mr Mugabe’s closest confidants, will have to go. A currency board may be set up to oversee what would in effect be a new currency, most likely pegged, at least at first, to the South African rand. The new government’s first priority is to stabilise the currency. During that painful period, which could last several months, more shops will have to be allowed to sell in foreign currency. A massive cash injection from abroad is unlikely while hyperinflation is still at world-record rates.
The economy has shrunk by more than half in a decade; farming and manufacturing have collapsed; shortages of almost all essential goods, including cooking and heating fuel, sugar and bread, are causing grim hardship. The UN’s World Food Programme reckons that 2m or so of the 10m-odd people still in Zimbabwe (some 3m have emigrated) urgently need food handouts. That number could swell to 5m by early next year, after the failure of this year’s harvest.
The European Union and the United States are waiting to see how the new government, still to be formed, will function before piling in with every kind of aid, though food will be an early priority. Their list of targeted sanctions that ban travel for 130 or so of Mr Mugabe’s closest political and business comrades and freeze their overseas assets will stay in force until standards of government visibly improve. Foreign investors, keen to get back into what was once one of southern Africa’s most vibrant economies, are poised to return but many will wait for the reversal of recent laws decreeing that the government may prevent any foreign concern—and any white Zimbabwean—from owning more than half of any company.
Waiting for manna
Few outsiders will offer hard cash until economic policy clearly changes direction. If that happens, the International Monetary Fund says it is ready to discuss ways to steady the economy. At the end of August, Zimbabwe still owed $137m to the Fund, which has not lent money to Mr Mugabe’s government since the 1990s.
Above all, outsiders will want to see whether Mr Mugabe’s team still pulls the main levers of power. If they do, Zimbabwe will continue to sink without much help from abroad. The more Mr Tsvangirai manages to deliver, the faster the world will come to the country’s aid. But it could be months more agony before it becomes clear which way Zimbabwe is going.