The Zimbabwe power-sharing agreement today appeared near collapse after President Robert Mugabe demanded the right to appoint all key cabinet ministers, rendering the opposition toothless at the helm of the country.
After an hour-long meeting between the 84-year-old president and prime minister-elect Morgan Tsvangirai, his opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said it had asked South African mediator Thabo Mbeki to salvage the power-sharing process.
However, South African officials tonight could not confirm they had received such a request, amid confusion since Mbeki resigned as president on September 21.
MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said: "We want to share power. But Mugabe wants to swallow the MDC. We will not allow that. He wants all the key ministries – finance, home affairs, defence, information, foreign affairs, justice and even women and youth."
On Monday, after returning from the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Mugabe told a crowd at Harare airport that he would appoint a cabinet "before the end of this week", suggesting he would not await the agreement of the MDC.
Zimbabwe has been without a government since parliament was dissolved in January ahead of elections on March 29 in which the MDC won a lower house majority and Tsvangirai forced Mugabe to a presidential run-off poll.
The violence that preceded the second election, on June 30, prompted the opposition leader to withdraw. Under a power-sharing agreement mediated by Mbeki and signed on September 15, the government was to have 31 ministries.
In a bid to reflect the parliamentary election result, 13 of the ministries were to be nominated by Tsvangirai’s MDC and a further three by another faction of the MDC, led by Arthur Mutambara.
But talks about which ministries would be offered to whom had not been completed before the signing and the process quickly began to falter amid an unrelated power-struggle in South Africa which saw Mbeki ousted as president a week later.
In New York last week, Mugabe claimed agreement had been reached on all but four ministries, which he did not name but which were believed to be home affairs, finance, local government and foreign affairs.
The international community were looking to the MDC winning control of at least the finance ministry and preferably foreign affairs before resuming full trade relations and ultimately considering lifting travel bans and asset restrictions on leading figures in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF).
Observers had suggested that Mugabe wanted to retain control of the defence ministry – and therefore the army – but might be prepared to relinquish home affairs – and thus control of the police – to the opposition.
But it now appears that negotiations had never reached such an advanced stage. Nor did they progress while Mugabe was in the United States for 10 days.
University of Zimbabwe political analyst John Makumbe said the agreement was "full of holes" from the start. He said: "I do not know what the MDC were thinking when they signed it. The agreement left Mugabe with all the powers. It was defective because it never allocated the levers of power.
"Now he has behaved in his predictable fashion. He is not only backing out of the deal but it is clear that he was simply trying to use the MDC as a glove to bring back foreign direct investment.
"By the end of this week we can expect to have a cabinet just as Mugabe wants it. He is under pressure from the old guard in Zanu-PF who do not want to lose their jobs."
Makumbe shared misgivings expressed by several observers about Mbeki’s future role. Despite having been endorsed by the Southern African Development Community and the African Union to continue as mediator, he is seen as lacking clout now that he is no longer president.