At last, some good news from Zimbabwe

HARARE, Zimbabwe — At last, some good news from Zimbabwe. Inflation has plummeted and prices now appear stable. And the cholera epidemic has peaked, although it has already taken more than 4,000 lives and is expected to kill hundreds more before it is fully controlled.

The progress in taming inflation is a result of the government abandoning the Zimbabwe dollar and adopting the U.S. dollar and the South African rand. The fight against cholera has been led by international agencies, such as Doctors Without Borders, but has been helped in recent weeks by the return to work of many Zimbabwean medical personnel, who have been paid by the new government.

These developments are widely viewed as positive achievements for Zimbabwe’s landmark power-sharing agreement between President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

The uneasy coalition must still pass a number of tests, however. 

On its surface, the agreement would appear to be holding up reasonably well, partly as a result of improved relations between the two principal players, Mugabe and Tsvangirai. But a closer inspection reveals several obstacles that are impeding progress towards solving Zimbabwe's pressing economic, political and humanitarian crises.

Mugabe’s prompt attendance, with his wife Grace, at Tsvangirai’s hospital bed March 6 — following a road accident that left Tsvangirai injured and his wife Susan dead — enhanced an increasingly cordial relationship that just six weeks earlier was palpably hostile. Grace, who during last year’s bitter election campaign denounced the opposition leader in vitriolic terms and swore that he would never occupy State House (the official presidential residence), reportedly sobbed uncontrollably at Tsvangirai’s bedside within two hours of the accident.

Mugabe and his wife subsequently attended a memorial service for Susan Tsvangirai, and the government assisted with the funeral arrangements. For his part, Tsvangirai made a public statement saying he believed the fatal car crash was, indeed, an accident, dampening rumors that Mugabe had engineered the incident.

Another barrier to improved relations was removed with the release of MDC treasurer Roy Bennett on March 12, which fulfilled a pledge Mugabe made to regional leaders in January that he would release all political prisoners.

In a sign of the times, prison officers asked Bennett for one thing when he was released — “Free Roy” T-shirts.

But Mugabe on March 25 refused to swear Bennett into office as deputy minister of agriculture, saying that the white former farmer faced serious charges of purchasing arms to disrupt the government. The charges are widely regarded as spurious. The same charges, pressed against Giles Mutsekwa, were thrown out of court for lack of evidence. Mutsekwa is now minister of home affairs, in charge of police. Yet Mugabe refuses to allow Bennett take up office.

This is more than just a fit of pique by Mugabe, it is evidence of a refusal to return Zimbabwe to the rule of law. As such, it is one of the many obstacles to Zimbabwe getting the kind of international economic aid that it needs to get this country back on its feet.

The International Monetary Fund stated that it will not give critical aid until the new government moves ahead with sound economic policies and restores the rule of law. The IMF's statement, on March 25, is a significant disappointment for the new government. Both sides had hoped the IMF would give the go ahead for Western donors to send substantial aid into Zimbabwe.

Finance Minsiter Biti said Zimbabwe needs $5 billion, $2 billion of it urgently. However, the IMF and other major donors like the U.S., U.K. and EU have made it clear that full democratic changes, especially an adherence to the rule of law, are required before they can start writing checks to the new government. 

Gains in the actual sharing of power are glacial and relations between the two parties remain fraught with tension. Rivalries between the camps have led to open clashes. Finance Minister Tendai Biti conspicuously omitted Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe's central bank, from his team that recently visited South Africa in search of funding for the new administration. Gono responded by publishing a statement reminding ministers who was responsible for monetary policy.

Among Tsvangirai's top priorities had been the removal of Gono and a reversal of the appointment of Johannes Tomana to become attorney general — both were Mugabe appointees. But after Mugabe stated publicly that the two were “not going anywhere,” it was agreed that the two picks would be reviewed in six months.

The delay is proving fatal to the economy. International financiers are reluctant to do business with Gono, who is seen as responsible for Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation because he prints money with abandon to finance Mugabe's policies.

Tomana, meanwhile, has unleashed the police against white farmers who had won a judgement from the regional tribunal of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Windhoek, Namibia, that said they could stay on their land. The SADC ruling was “nonsense,” Mugabe said — his action was precisely the sort of populist intervention that damages Zimbabwe's ability to attract investors.

Tomana was also prominent in keeping Bennett behind bars, even after a High Court judge ordered his release. Zimbabwean law suspends a court ruling if the state appeals to a higher court.

The Commercial Farmers Union has described the state’s assault on the remaining white farmers as racist and damaging to agricultural production. The number of white farmers has now dwindled to a hundred.

Another area of friction has been telecommunications. A ministry allocated to Tsvangirai's MDC — which is responsible, among other things, for mail interception — has been the target of a takeover bid by another ministry run by a Zanu-PF loyalist.

Tsvangirai said he will decide the outcome of that situation, but doesn’t seem in any hurry. Whichever party ends up with the interceptions function will have a useful tool in information-gathering.

Rivalry in this sort of coalition government is inevitable. But the salient problem is Mugabe’s reluctance to let go. For someone who makes decisions on the fly and who has micro-managed politics and the economy for nearly 30 years, it is understandably difficult to transfer power. But unless he does there will be no recovery and a grim future.

As the southern African region grows and prospers, Zimbabwe persists in heading the other way. 

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