Chance for unity

Print edition : March 13, 2009

AFTER months of stalling, Zimbabwes main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai, has officially joined the unity government. Tsvangirai was administered the oath of office as Prime Minister by President Robert Mugabe on February 11. The swearing-in took place nearly four months after the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the MDC agreed to a power-sharing deal aimed at ending almost a year of political and economic turmoil.

A 35-member Cabinet representing the ZANU-PF and the MDC was sworn into office. Key portfolios were evenly divided. For instance, the Home Ministry will be shared by the ZANU-PF and the MDC. The new Finance Minister, Tendai Biti of the MDC, is among Mugabes harshest critics. Biti was also against the power-sharing accord brokered by the South African Development Community (SADC) but will now have the Herculean task of reining in the countrys runaway inflation, the highest in the world, and bringing the economy back on track.

Tsvangirai finally succumbed to pressure from the SADC and the African Union (A.U.). African leaders have been urging the Zimbabwean opposition to implement the agreements brokered by former South African President Thabo Mbeki in Harare last year. Since then the country, overwhelmed by international sanctions and an economic meltdown of unprecedented proportions, has been crying out for a political resolution of the crisis that erupted after the parliamentary and presidential elections last year.

The cholera epidemic, which has killed over 3,000 people in the country, has worsened the situation for the common man. As things stand today, more than half of Zimbabwes population needs food aid, and unemployment is estimated at around 94 per cent. Public hospitals are closed owing to lack of equipment and the inability of the government to pay the staff. Three million Zimbabweans have left the country in search of work in neighbouring countries.

Kgalame Motlanthe, the new President of South Africa and also the Chairperson of the SADC, played a key role in convincing Tsvangirai to accept the power-sharing deal. Washington and London, which have been instigating the MDC to stay away from a unity government, are not happy with the turn of events. Both the United States and the European Union have been loudly demanding the ouster of Mugabe. Some Western leaders even suggested outside military intervention. Following the March parliamentary elections, the West imposed additional sanctions on Zimbabwe.

Despite the unity government being in place, and the Zimbabwean people being in dire straits, both the U.S. and the E.U. have said that the sanctions on the country will remain. The U.S., the United Kingdom and France have said that they will restore aid only after Mugabes ouster.

For the past 10 years, Mugabe has been the Wests bete noire in the region. Western sanctions on Zimbabwe started way back in 1998 when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) froze loans and refused to renegotiate the countrys debt. By 2000, international financial institutions led by the IMF suspended all forms of new lending to Zimbabwe. In December 2001, the George W. Bush administration passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which put intolerable conditions on the sovereign country.

Zimbabwe soon found itself in a position where it could not engage in normal international trade. The landlocked country imports all its oil and most of the spare parts and machinery for its industry. The SADC had called for an end to all sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2007 and international support to help it recover from the economic after-effects of the land reform programme.

Benjamin Mkapa, former President of Tanzania, complained that the U.K. had launched a bombardment for an alliance against Mugabe among Commonwealth members. The Bush administration admitted in 2007 that it had sponsored events inside Zimbabwe with the purpose of discrediting Mugabe and the ZANU-PF. There have been credible reports in the Western media that the MDC received financing and political advice from Washington and many European capitals such as London, Brussels, Paris and Berlin.

It is to the credit of the SADC, and especially the leadership of South Africa, that the West was not allowed to dictate the course of regime change in Zimbabwe. In fact, many observers have praised the way in which the regional grouping is trying to solve the complex political situation in Zimbabwe. SADC leaders described their way as that of non-interference, stabilisation and quiet diplomacy.

This is in stark comparison with the scene in South Asia, where India and Pakistan have virtually anointed the U.S. as an arbiter to settle their disputes. Zimbabwes neighbours such as South Africa and Angola have promised to redouble their efforts to help the beleaguered countrys government once there is an end to the political instability. In most of Africa, Mugabe still commands respect as a hero of the liberation struggle and as an elder statesman.

Tsvangirai has promised to bring stability to the crisis-ridden country by taking immediate steps to rehabilitate the dilapidated economy. Addressing supporters in Harare, the Prime Minister said that the priority of the government would be to make food available and affordable to all Zimbabweans. He pledged to reopen all the closed medical and educational institutions.

Tsvangirai, while implicitly criticising the tactics adopted by the ZANU-PF against the opposition, said that the recent developments were a big step forward. If yesterday we were adversaries today we stand in unity. It is a victory for Zimbabwe, he told his cheering supporters.

The challenges ahead for the new unity government are daunting. The MDC, as the voting pattern showed during the parliamentary elections last year, is popular in the urban areas. It controls the town councils in the two main cities, Harare and Bulawayo. The ZANU-PF continues to be popular in the rural areas. The urban-rural divide will make cohabitation between the ZANU-PF and the MDC very difficult in the coming months.

The land reform programme initiated by Mugabe has benefited many rural families. Mahmoud Mamdani, the eminent Ugandan-born political scientist, wrote the following about Mugabe in an article in the London Review of Books: For he has ruled not only by coercion but by consent, and his land reforms measures, however harsh, have won him considerable popularity, not just in Zimbabwe but throughout southern Africa.

Mamdani, who is no admirer of Mugabe, points out that 6,000 white farmers owned 15.5 million hectares of the most fertile land in Zimbabwe after its independence in 1980. At that time, the whites comprised only 3 per cent of the population. The black majority subsisted on 16.4 million hectares of the most arid land.

Under the governments land reform programme, 80 per cent of the land owned by white farmers was expropriated. Mamdani describes it as the greatest transfer of property in southern Africa since colonisation and that, in social and economic terms, is a democratic revolution. Mamdani, however, is critical of the states crackdown on the opposition and groups opposed to land redistribution. The agreement signed between ZANU-PF and the MDC in September, which paved the way for the unity government, has described the land reforms as irreversible.

Senior MDC parliamentarians have started accusing Tsvangirai of converting the MDC into a junior partner of the ZANU-PF despite the former getting more votes and seats in the 2008 parliamentary polls. But most Zimbabweans seem fed up with the divisive politics that has to a great extent caused the countrys decline from being the breadbasket of Africa. In January, protesters tried to barricade the negotiators from the ZANU-PF and the MDC in an attempt to prevent a deal.

A recent United Nations Information Service report said: Zimbabweans are battered and bruised. The process has been so drawn out increasingly, all sides to the dialogue have become discredited. Aid workers in Zimbabwe have described the situation in the country as a silent emergency. At the same time, they have expressed optimism that the situation can be rectified in a short time, provided there is a committed and united leadership. According to experts, despite the ravages experienced by the country in recent years, the basic infrastructure for an economic renewal is still in place.

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