Opinion: Zimbabwe's New Year looks a lot like the old

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabweans are hoping that 2010 will bring continued economic and political improvements, but there are already many signs that the new year will bring more of the same.

2009 wasn’t the best of years but it was a huge improvement on 2008.

For Zimbabweans there was one thing that stood out: a stable economy with zero inflation. While there were cash shortages over the holiday, there was no repeat of the long lines at banks that made the festive season so miserable for many in recent years.

Nor were there the waves of abductions and human rights abuses that were common in the wake of 2008’s bloody poll. While the state has been contriving cases against lawyers and civic activists, it has found the courts less sympathetic than in the past.

The winds of change, first articulated by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1960, are once again blowing across the land and there is a palpable sense in which President Robert Mugabe’s repressive regime is doomed. But it is not going without a fight.

It recently recruited professor Jonathan Moyo, a former minister of information, whose recriminatory prose and sinister threats have occupied column inches in the official press in past electoral contests. Moyo is already applying his considerable talents to denouncing Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) despite the fact that it is now part of the government. He has accused Tsvangirai, who is prime minister, of running a “parallel government” with the support of donors who don’t want to see their funds falling into Mugabe’s hands.

As 2009 drew to a close, Mugabe announced members of statutory commissions to regulate the media, protect human rights and run elections following lengthy negotiations with the MDC, as stipulated in last February’s political agreement.

Civil society has complained that many of the appointees are staunch supporters of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party. Among those appointed to the Human Rights Commission, for instance, is a former senior immigration officer who in 2003 was responsible for the abduction and deportation of a foreign correspondent in violation of three High Court orders.

It remains to be seen if these so-called independent bodies are given free rein.

“While the coalition is still holding,” the editor of the independent Financial Gazette wrote at the end of last year, “it is all too clear that the marriage is not working. It has been dogged by allegations and counter-allegations. Should the wrangling in the unity government continue into the new year there won’t be much for Zimbabweans to hope for.”

So while there has been real progress on the economic front with stabilization and investor interest, the political situation remains fragile as Mugabe battles to retain control.

“The country’s economy will continue to be held hostage by politics,” the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries president, Kumbirayi Katsande, warned last week.

Katsande should know. He was arrested and interrogated by police recently when the company he heads, Nestle Zimbabwe, declined to purchase milk from a company, Gushungo Holdings, belonging to First Lady Grace Mugabe. This followed protests in Europe that Nestle was doing business with properties seized from white farmers.

A compromise has since been reached. But the impression remains that Nestle has been ordered to purchase its requirements from the first family. Significantly, Mugabe is in breach of his own policy outlawing multiple-farm ownership. He and his wife own six. And elsewhere farm seizures persist. A list published recently of land seizures in the Chegutu area southwest of Harare reveals the participation of judges, policemen and local land allocation officials.

Western governments have told Tsvangirai that he should ensure compliance with February’s political agreement before asking for sanctions to be lifted. With Mugabe’s followers helping themselves to farm property, threats being made against international companies such as Nestle, and the attorney general continuing to bring trumped-up charges against MDC activists, a genuine democratic order seems still far off.

The case of Roy Bennett who Mugabe refuses to appoint to government because “he is facing very serious charges” is emblematic of the problems the MDC faces. Bennett is deputy minister of agriculture-designate and seen by Zanu-PF as a threat to its land policies.

Mugabe said over the holiday that there was no urgency in completing negotiations between the parties while South African mediators try to set time-frames for a comprehensive deal. He used the Copenhagen climate summit to grandstand in front of an influential audience, once again denouncing the West for hypocrisy.

But it has become clear that developing countries no longer see Mugabe as their spokesman. And his entourage of over 60 including his wife, cabinet ministers and their wives raised questions about Zimbabwe’s commitment to fiscal probity at a time when the country is holding out the begging bowl to donors. Tsvangirai declined an invitation to attend.

So long as old habits die hard and Mugabe continues to be the chief obstacle to reform, the prospects for 2010 remain dim.