Zimbabwe: Has anything changed in one year?

HARARE, Zimbabwe — It is one year since President Robert Mugabe agreed to a power-sharing deal with his main election challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Tsvangirai is now prime minister, members of his party are in parliament and cabinet. But many Zimbabweans are asking what benefits have emerged from the power-sharing government? Mugabe maintains an iron grip on the police, army and judiciary. MDC lawmakers and officials are routinely arrested on trumped up charges while institutional reforms, most notably freeing up the media, have been blocked.

"It is like living in a large open-air prison," one newspaper columnist said this week following the visit of a European Union delegation.

The visit enabled Mugabe to once again denounce sanctions and portray the dispute with the EU as a bilateral problem with an obdurate incumbent at Number 10 Downing Street.

But the EU MPs were careful to describe their visit as "exploratory." They stressed the need, as South African President Jacob Zuma did in August, to fulfill all aspects of the pact that would allow real power to be shared. The EU would only fully engage with Zimbabwe once the power-sharing agreement is fully implemented, which was "currently not the case," said the delegation's chief, Karel De Gucht.

Mugabe claims he has done that. But virtually all objective observers agree that huge holes in the agreement remain. Provincial governors from the MDC have yet to be appointed, although individuals have been named. MDC diplomats are being trained but not sent anywhere. A glaring example of Mugabe refusing fair treatment of the MDC is the case of Roy Bennett. Mugabe has dragged his heels in appointing Bennett, the MDC treasurer, as deputy minister of agriculture on the grounds that he faces what the president calls "serious charges." In fact identical charges against the current minister of home affairs were dismissed by a court three years ago and in Bennett's case the chief prosecution witness has refused to testify. Trumped-up they may seem, but the charges against Bennett are being used to prevent him from assuming office.

The most emblematic of the impasse in government is Mugabe's refusal to remove Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono and Attorney General Johannes Tomana who were appointed in blatant violation of the agreement's requirement that all senior posts first be approved by the three principals to the power-sharing deal.

That includes professor Arthur Mutambara as well as Mugabe and prime minister Tsvangirai. Mutambara, who is deputy prime minister, has infuriated the president's supporters by arguing Zimbabwe cannot rebrand itself for investment purposes so long as arbitrary arrests and other facets of misrule persist.

The MDC was warned by friends, the United States in particular, at the time of last year's agreement that Mugabe would be a major obstacle to change. Tsvangirai and the MDC were well aware of the pitfalls but reluctantly signed because they could not afford to forfeit the support of their regional backers in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

They are now stuck with an unsatisfactory agreement and a regional body that has neither the will nor the capacity to compel Mugabe to adhere to the terms agreed. The new chair of SADC, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) president Joseph Kabila, owes his personal safety to Zimbabwean security personnel stationed at his palace. Mugabe intervened to prop up his father's regime in 1998. Kabila is unlikely to tell Mugabe what to do.

"While former South African president Thabo Mbeki pursued a policy of 'quiet diplomacy' towards Harare," University of Zimbabwe analyst Eldred Masunungure, SADC leaders postponed discussion on Zimbabwe until a future date at their recent summit in Kinshasa, the DRC capital. It was indicative of their fear of Mugabe's wrath, observers said.

For months Tsvangirai has tried to make things work and even went to the United States and Europe to try and convince those donors to grant substantial aid to Zimbabwe. They refused, insisting that restoration of the rule of law and respect for basic democratic rights must come first. For the first time Tsvangirai voiced his growing frustration, speaking in Bulawayo at the 10th anniversary of the MDC's formation.

"I am not going to stand by while Zanu-PF (Mugabe's party) continue to violate the law, persecute our members of parliament, spread the language of hate, invade our productive farms … ignore our international treaties," said Tsvangirai to thousands of supporters in Bulawayo. "I am not going to stand by and let this happen."

Tsvangirai made clear his aggravation: "I have done my part to promote reconciliation in this country. Even after winning the election, I have compromised for the sake of Zimbabwe. But don't misjudge me. You misjudge me at your peril." He added: "We want partners that are sincere. We want partners who are going to commit themselves to good governance principles. We cannot have partners of looters."

Tsvangirai said that he would consult with member of his party on how it should proceed in the coalition with Mugabe's Zanu-PF. "We are coming to you. Is this government sustainable? It is you, the people, who shall give us direction," said Tsvangirai.

Until Tsvangirai can find a more robust plan for confronting Mugabe, 85, and his generals, he will continue to play second fiddle to him.

Some comfort can be found, however, in the leaked results of a university-linked survey recently which suggest that only 10 percent of Zimbabweans would vote for Mugabe in a democratic poll. Tsvangirai still enjoys widespread support. But he does not have the strategy or the means to deal with crafty Mugabe and his well-oiled political machine.