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Tsvangirai faces trouble abroad, trouble at home

World leaders embraced the touring Zimbabwean Prime Minister, but Mugabe's shadow loomed large.

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown (L) hosts Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai at 10 Downing Street in London, June 22, 2009. (Lewis Whyld/Reuters)

HARARE, Zimbabwe — It wasn’t a triumphal parade, but nor was it the abject failure the government press would have its readers believe.

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai returned to Harare, ending his three-week tour of Europe and the United States this week satisfied that he had reestablished ties with the West, damaged after 29 years of President Robert Mugabe’s unrelenting hostility. The sums of money pledged to Tsvangirai may be modest, but it is what it symbolized that matters.

“His visit has proved one thing,” declared Wilf Mbanga, exiled publisher of The Zimbabwean.  “The international community cares deeply about the people of Zimbabwe and would like to help them get back on the road to peace, prosperity and good governance.”

Tsvangirai was given the red-carpet treatment wherever he went, meeting U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office and inspecting a guard of honour with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. British premier Gordon Brown greeted him like a long-lost friend.
But wherever he went he was haunted by the same question: Was he his own man?

Zimbabwe’s state-run media unhelpfully claimed Tsvangirai had been “tasked” by Mugabe to bring home the billions needed for recovery and secure the lifting of sanctions. He failed in both respects — Obama offered a scant $73 million — but the U.S. president rejected the suggestion that Tsvangirai was Mugabe’s errand boy. Faced with the dilemma of a courageous democratic icon and a recidivist ruler in Harare, Western leaders promised further support as soon as certain benchmarks on governance were met.

But Tsvangirai didn’t help his own case by gushing in Pollyanna terms over his “extraordinary” working relationship with Mugabe. And the state-media seemed delighted that he returned home “empty-handed”.

But they were deliberately missing the point. Western leaders know only too well that the face of Zimbabwe's beast is still visible. The police and military remain untamed. Just before Tsvangirai told BBC radio listeners how much the political climate in Zimbabwe had changed, police officers in Harare were laying into a group of peaceful women demonstrators with batons. There were far too many demonstrations taking place, a police spokesman said, and they didn’t have permission.

The group’s leader, Jenni Williams, pleaded with Western governments to leave sanctions in place until reform is tangible.