Mugabe content to play the waiting game

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA It's a waiting game, and no one is better at outlasting his competition than Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.

After a June election that the world derided as a sham, Zimbabwe’s longtime president signed a unity government deal with the opposition last month that allows him to keep his job.

But his cronies in the Cabinet who would lose power are now baulking. As Zimbabwe descends into financial and humanitarian chaos, Mugabe appears content just to wait for the opposition to yield to his demand for more choice Cabinet seats.

For decades, Mugabe has consistently shown that he is more interested in power than the fate of his people. In contrast, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change is pained by the delays in instituting reforms that could help Zimbabwe’s hungry masses.

Mugabe has even more leverage because he has never been afraid to use violence against his rivals. His police, soldiers and party militants drove opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai out of the June presidential run-off with attacks on opposition supporters.

And he has been using violence for years. Soon after Mugabe took over after independence from Britain in 1980, his troops were accused of massacring rivals in the western Matabeleland province. In 2005, his government brutally cleared out slum areas seen as opposition strongholds.

Even as Mugabe signed the power-sharing deal three weeks ago, he sounded far from defeated.

In a nationally televised speech, he offered to teach opposition members how to govern, noting they had had little experience — but not acknowledging that was because he had used violence and fraud to keep them out of office.

At one point during the speech, Tsvangirai held his hand to his head in disbelief. Since then, the two have been unable to agree on how to share the Cabinet, with Tsvangirai accusing Mugabe of trying to hold on to the most powerful posts.

The main disputes have been over who would control the police, defence, justice, finance, foreign affairs, information and local government.

Control of the security forces is particularly sensitive. Top generals have said publicly they would never salute Tsvangirai. Mugabe could, as he has threatened to do, simply name his own Cabinet, with or without opposition members. That he has yet to do so indicates some concern about the reaction of his neighbours and the West.

But he could still try to portray the opposition as the stumbling block at a time when Zimbabwe needs a true leader to tame its hyperinflation — an economic crisis some have compared to the situation in Germany after World War I.

Zimbabweans are suffering chronic shortages of hard currency, cash, food and all basic goods and medicines. Aid agencies say at least five million people, about half the population, will need food handouts by January.

Under the power-sharing deal, Mugabe remains president and head of the Cabinet. As prime minister Tsvangirai heads a council of ministers — in effect, the Cabinet without Mugabe present — responsible for government policies, a complex arrangement Mugabe could exploit by playing on tensions within the opposition.

Mugabe’s party gets 15 Cabinet seats, Tsvangirai’s party gets 13 and a smaller breakaway opposition group led by Arthur Mutamabara gets three.

Critics, including Zimbabwean labor, religious and human rights groups that traditionally back Tsvangirai, say the deal should never have been struck. They say what Zimbabwe needs now is an apolitical administration with neither Mugabe nor Tsvangirai that could prepare for new elections.

The opposition has called on African leaders such as former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who mediated the power-sharing agreement, to step back in. But African leaders have had very little success in the past in influencing Mugabe.

If the opposition has any leverage, it is with the broader international community. Western powers are ready to unblock aid and investment — but only if Tsvangirai is established as the main decision-maker.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said on Monday that European Union sanctions will not be lifted until Mugabe and the opposition agree on a new administration.

Mugabe, though, insists that his country doesn’t need its former colonial power and blames his country’s economic woes on Western sanctions.

His critics counter that Zimbabwe’s severe decline began in 2000 with Mugabe’s orders to seize white-owned farms, ostensibly to help impoverished black Zimbabweans. Most of the farms seized went to Mugabe loyalists instead, devastating the country’s agricultural base.

While banks in the capital are besieged daily by poor people trying to withdraw pittances to buy bread, Mugabe loyalists have easy access to foreign currency and can play off currency discrepancies on the black market. Some are getting rich amid the chaos. – Sapa-AP