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Zimbabwe’s fractured politics

Robert Mugabe prevents Morgan Tsvangirai from assuming power, and then asks why West doesn't give money.

Who's being saluted? It appears Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, left, is in command while Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, right, defers. The two leaders here are attending a ceremony to observe national healing and reconciliation in Harare, July 24, 2009. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

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.