One year on and still treading water

On 15 September 2008 President Robert Mugabe, leader of ZANU-PF, and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and Arthur Mutambara, leader of a breakaway MDC faction, signed the Global Political Agreement (GPA), paving the way for the unity government to be established in February 2009.

For Mugabe it meant the dilution of nearly three decades of rule, while Tsvangirai agreed to accept the junior position of prime minister, even though his party had won a parliamentary majority and he had convincingly beaten Mugabe in the presidential ballot, but had withdrawn from the presidential run-off in protest over sometimes deadly political violence against his supporters.

Yet the international dilemma remains: how can more assistance be given to rescue the country from bankruptcy as long as Mr Mugabe and his political cronies keep control of the security apparatus and continue to persecute their opponents?

The answer is certainly not to lift the targeted sanctions that have been imposed on the Zimbabwean president and his closest associates. They include measures to restrict travel and control the international bank accounts of selected individuals. They were imposed because of the humanitarian offences being committed in Zimbabwe, such as arbitrary arrests and prosecution of political opponents, illegal land seizures, and rampant corruption. As long as such behaviour continues the sanctions should remain in force.

Yet there has been a significant improvement in living conditions of ordinary Zimbabweans since the formation of the coalition government. It is primarily due to the stabilisation of rampant inflation thanks to the dollarisation of the economy. The massively devalued Zimbabwe dollar has effectively ceased to be a currency, replaced by US dollars and South African rands. The tentative recovery in economic activity – still only a fraction of its former level – should be encouraged.

One problem is that Mr Mugabe still controls the central bank through his personal appointee as governor, Gideon Gono. He is not trusted by international aid donors, having presided for years over a system of rationing scarce foreign exchange reserves for the benefit of the elite. Although dollarisation has limited his room for manoeuvre, any serious effort to provide more aid will be constrained until there is a new regime at the bank.

In the meantime, aid could and should be channelled wherever possible through ministries controlled by Mr Tsvangirai’s appointees, or directly through aid agencies and non-governmental organisations. It is not ideal, but until Mr Mugabe fulfils his side of the coalition agreement, and relinquishes control of the economy and police, it is the only option.

The GPA was brokered by then South African president Thabo Mbeki – appointed as negotiator by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – and was envisaged as the mechanism to begin healing the political rifts that had plunged once prosperous Zimbabwe into penury, disease and food insecurity.

A year later the GPA’s track record is getting mixed reviews. Sokwanele, an NGO monitoring adherence to the agreement, cites Mugabe’s ZANU-PF as being responsible for nearly 88.5 percent of all violations until the end of August 2009, the remainder being shared by Tsvangirai’s and Mutambara’s MDCs.

"ZANU-PF’s favourite political tool – violence – still plagues Zimbabwe’s populace to the extent that it is almost accepted as a norm by the majority," Sokwanele noted in a report published on 7 September 2009.

Twelve months later, the economy’s seemingly endless atrophy has halted. Abandoning the local currency, left worthless after years of hyperinflation, has brought a semblance of normality to once-bare store shelves, easing chronic food shortages.

But ongoing political feuding over key government posts has exposed the deal’s fragility, raising fears over whether the unity government is a solution or just a lull to the nation’s problems.

Both men freely express their reservations about their awkward coalition.

"This is the situation we should and could have avoided," Mugabe told his party’s youth wing on Friday, calling for "careful, measured steps as we nurse this new pattern of government".

"And, as we co-exist in this arrangement, we should not underestimate the need to re-examine ourselves both as a party and leadership," he added.

Tsvangirai says he only agreed to the unity pact to halt the crushing hardships that Zimbabweans faced last year, as food supplies disappeared and broken sewers sparked a cholera epidemic that killed 4 200 people in just 12 months.

"We believed if this government can work, it can bring better lives and you can begin to rebuild your life," he told his supporters at a rally on Sunday.

"That [government] is not real change. It is a temporary, transitional process toward real change."

After the deal was signed on September 15 2008, it took another five months to install the unity government, after a bitter brawl over who would control the most powerful posts.

Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won control of the Finance Ministry, but Mugabe’s Zanu-PF still has a firm grip on the security forces, state media and the Justice Ministry.

‘Flawed arrangement’

"It’s a flawed arrangement, a dysfunctional arrangement, where it’s Zanu-PF trying to maintain its stranglehold on power," said Sydney Masamvu, researcher with the International Crisis Group.

"This arrangement is not one where we are going to be delivering everything. It’s an ad-hoc arrangement," he said.

The rivals have yet to agree on key appointments like the central bank governor and the attorney general, prompting Tsvangirai to ask regional leaders to again intervene to mediate a solution.

Key provisions of the power-sharing deal, like creating a new security council to control the armed forces, have hardly been implemented.

And efforts to draft a new constitution, required by the accord to pave the way to fresh elections, have become bogged down in disputes over money and political jeering.

"Power is not shared, but divided," said political analyst Eldred Masunungure. "Moreover, the distribution of power is unequal, with the balance tilted in favour of the previous regime."

Despite its many problems, Masunungure said, the unity government has brought desperately needed relief to a nation of 94% unemployment and chronic national food shortages.

"The biggest achievement of the transition so far is that people hope that it can deliver a better and brighter future," Masunungure said.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product shrank by 54% between 2000 and 2008. The World Bank now predicts growth of 3,7% this year, just shy of government’s 4% percent forecast.

Dollarising the economy has allowed people to begin saving and investing money, and opened the door for businesses to resume operations.

But if the unity government fails to bring tangible benefits to the weary population, the public’s goodwill could run out, Masunungure added. 

A senior official in Mutambara’s MDC, Renson Gasela, told IRIN: "There are a lot of positives that have been registered following the signing of the GPA – we now have goods in our shops, which was not the case before the GNU [Government of National Unity]. If the power-sharing deal is fully implemented, I think life will even be better for most Zimbabweans."

Tendai Musemburi, a political commentator based in the capital, Harare, told IRIN: "There are very obvious areas of improvement, especially in the area of availability in terms of food and basic commodities in the shops, which was not the case before the signing of the GPA … The downside to that is that the US dollars needed to make purchases are not easily available."

The Zimbabwean dollar was discontinued and replaced by multiple foreign currencies to end hyperinflation measured in trillions of percent.

However, the GPA has failed to fulfil expectations that life would be better. "The disappointment emanates from the fact that many thought there would be more jobs, and that income levels would improve, but that has not really happened … more needs to be done on the economic front to solve bread-and-butter issues," Musemburi said.

Degrees of peace

In a statement marking the anniversary Tsvangirai said: "A degree of peace and stability has begun to take root, and basic foods and services have returned to the country."

Nevertheless, he tempered the achievements of the GPA by commenting that ZANU-PF continued to "frustrate" full implementation of the agreement. "To make matters worse, the selective application of the rule of law, including the persecution and prosecution of MDC MPs, continues to inflame political tensions," he said in the statement.

"Equally problematic is the deliberately slow pace of progress on the implementation of key issues connected to human rights and the rule of law. This includes the self-evident deliberate stalemate on the constitutional reform process, as well as the slow pace of media reform."

Political analyst Godfrey Kanyenze said the GPA’s first anniversary marked "a very clear stalemate. The MDC says there needs to be implementation of outstanding issues, while ZANU-PF says all issues have been implemented and that only sanctions are outstanding."

ZANU-PF believes the MDC has not campaigned enough for the removal of US and European Union sanctions targeting Mugabe and his associates for human rights abuses.

"The MDC, which urged its international supporters to impose the illegal sanctions, has the sole responsibility to ensure that its international supporters remove the sanctions forthwith," ZANU-PF said.

Western donors have adopted a wait-and-see approach, holding back billions of dollars in aid since the signing of the GPA in 2008 and the formation of the unity government in February 2009. Zimbabwe needs around US$8 billion to kick-start its ailing economy.

The MDC accuse Mugabe of bad faith in not swearing in its deputy agricultural minister, Roy Bennett, a former white farmer, and not resolving the outstanding issues of the appointment of the central bank governor and the attorney general without consulting the unity government partners, while also stalling the appointment of ten provincial governors that reflect the MDC’s majority in parliament.

Media hatred

The state media continue to view the partners in the unity government "through the historic perspective of hatred and acrimony, blatantly advancing the interests of a single party [ZANU-PF]," Tsvangirai said.

"The distortions of the political reality by the state media present a real and credible threat to this inclusive government and its ability to impact positively on the lives of all Zimbabweans."

In a recent report – The political and humanitarian challenges facing Zimbabwe’s GPA leadership and its ordinary citizens – Solidarity Peace Trust, an NGO campaigning for peace, democracy and human rights, sounded a note of caution.

"In the absence of sound alternatives to the current political arrangement, the slow international response to the needs of the new government could strengthen the hand of the more regressive elements of the ruling party in the military and security, while frustrating the democratic forces within the transitional state."