Zimbabwe’s fractured politics

HARARE — Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is clearly suffering from an identity crisis. He now requires all journalists in the government-owned media to address him as “Head of State and Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Forces.”

This mouthful of authority stems from Mugabe's unhappiness at Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's claims that he is the legitimate Head of Government. Tsvangirai has in recent weeks attempted to get briefings from army chiefs who have refused, claiming they serve only one master — Mugabe.

Mugabe has also been shuttling in and out of the country to make sure that Tsvangirai will not chair one of the weekly cabinet meetings.

Ordinarily one of Zimbabwe's two vice-presidents would take over for Mugabe but one is too frail to attend and the other is seen by Mugabe's hardliners as sympathetic to Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). So in between visiting Libya, Malawi and Zambia recently, the 85-year-old Mugabe made sure he was in Harare every Tuesday to deny Tsvangirai an opportunity to act as Head of Government.

MDC ministers boycotted a recent cabinet meeting when it became obvious that Mugabe had moved the date to prevent Tsvangirai’s deputy, Thokozani Khupe, from chairing the weekly meeting while Tsvangirai was on his way back from a visit to South Africa. Mugabe was incandescent with rage describing the boycott as “insolent.”

“It was a surprise to me to tell you the truth,” he told the state media. “I don’t know whether this is going to be the order of doing things. It’s insolence on the one hand but it’s also abysmal ignorance on the other.”

The episode illustrates Mugabe’s preoccupation with his own authority. Surrounded by a coterie of old-guard loyalists and military chiefs, the veteran leader is not conceding an inch of power in the increasingly problematic government of national unity set up in February.

The recent refusal of Attorney-General Johannes Tomana — a staunch Mugabe ally — to return the passport of senior MDC official Roy Bennett so he can attend meetings in South Africa, is an emblematic case. Mugabe misses no opportunity to remind the country that Bennett is facing “serious charges.” The MDC points out that the deputy agriculture minister-designate is innocent until found guilty. In any case, the exact same charges of amassing weapons for the purposes of banditry were thrown out of court three years ago when brought against another MDC official — who is now the current minister in charge of the police.

 In addition, the state’s star witness has said he will not give evidence against Bennett when the charges are so obviously trumped up.

“These are people who are trying to hide behind politics to settle scores,” retorted Attorney-General Tomana, defending his stubborn determination to keep the charges against Bennett. “They are blaming me for being Zanu-PF. I have my allegiance to my religion as I have my allegiance to my party of choice.” And in an undisguised reference to the Bennett case he made the following declaration: “I am a public servant and I owe it to the people that those facing serious charges are not given the freedom to flee.”

Tomana is very useful to Mugabe. He has brought a number of prosecutions against MDC MPs in the eastern districts of the country on grounds of political violence last year while studiously ignoring cases involving Zanu-PF MPs who mounted a campaign of violence that saw an estimated 200 MDC supporters killed. This has whittled down the MDC’s majority in parliament so the two main parties are nearly neck and neck at 97 and 95 seats. But Mugabe has obviously calculated that having MDC MPs lose their seats on the basis of spurious charges is more politically cost-effective than terrorizing their constituents.

The MDC charges that Mugabe is in breach of last September’s power sharing agreement by appointing Tomana without consulting his partners in government. Mugabe says he is under no obligation to do so.

Tsvangirai’s frustration over public perceptions that he is a captive in Mugabe’s tightly controlled political domain has led him to publish a newsletter from the prime minister’s office that is distributed free, much to the consternation of Mugabe’s officials. But this has not compensated for the daily torrent of hostility towards the MDC and civil society in the government press. There is no sign that the public media, which includes a stable of daily and Sunday publications and the country’s only broadcaster, is about to change its stance. Indeed, the more Mugabe is perceived as losing what little popularity he has left, the more he needs a partisan press.

The government has agreed to allow the BBC and CNN back into the country, claiming disingenuously the two networks were not banned in the first place. The Ministry of Home Affairs is meanwhile considering lifting prohibition orders against foreign correspondents evicted from the country over the past seven years. There is a consensus in media and government circles that the hated Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, the scourge of journalists since 2002, is likely to be repealed, or at least significantly amended.

A free media would be a giant leap for Zimbabweans not least because, with a new constitution in the making, the public would be able to make an informed choice at the ballot box.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Zimbabwe:

Western envoys tough with Mugabe

Zimbabwe's elderly whites return to Britain 

Zimbabwe's split personality

Mugabe is still the boss

Harare rocks with cultural festival