Robert I. Rotberg

The false unity in Zimbabwe

By Robert I. Rotberg
June 13, 2009
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PRIME MINISTER Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe, who visited President Obama yesterday, needs all the American support he can get. Although the head of government of an impoverished and beleaguered nation battered by a decade of severe mismanagement and corruption, Tsvangirai is hardly in charge. President Robert Mugabe is still calling too many of the crucial governing shots.

For that reason, Washington has been reluctant to help significantly to reconstruct Zimbabwe. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has wisely moved slowly, despite Tsvangirai's requests. Mugabe uses incoming funds to strengthen his own power, never to benefit the people. If assistance could be channeled directly to Tsvangirai, and the ministries he controls, then Washington could invest sensibly in Zimbabwe.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change won a parliamentary election in 2008 against Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). But Mugabe and his security forces refused to acknowledge their defeat, and kept on ruling. Finally, after brokering by South Africa and the Southern African Development Community in February, Mugabe and Tsvangirai created a unity government, with each side having a number of cabinet ministries, district governors, and so on.

Mugabe has not honored his side of the bargain, leaving Tsvangirai to soldier on as prime minister with truncated powers. Mugabe reappointed the governor of the central bank and the attorney general despite Tsvangirai's protests and an earlier promise that those positions would report to the prime minister. The central bank governor was responsible for printing un-backed local currency and driving Zimbabwe last year into 100,000 percent inflation, the highest in the world. He also supplied Mugabe and Mugabe's wife with cash for their own personal uses. The attorney general was and still is responsible for questionable prosecutions and the brutal treatment of MDC politicians and supporters.

Mugabe's appointed minister of communications has insisted that restrictions on who can report for the local and world media still pertain, despite Tsvangirai's recent declaration that such restrictions were null and void.

Tsvangirai has decreed an end to farm invasions and misappropriations of land, and Mugabe has declared that they must continue.

Mugabe's canny concession of limited power to Tsvangirai has saddled the Movement for a Democratic Change with refloating the country's economy under Finance Minister Tendai Biti, and with such tasks as turning on electric power after years of foreign exchange shortages and frequent power outages.

Mugabe and Tsvangirai jointly control the Minister of Home Affairs, which runs the police. But the police, still locking up MDC followers, and even torturing them, ignore Tsvangirai. So do the security forces. The military's Joint Operations Command was supposed to have been replaced by a National Security Council, in which Tsvangirai would have preponderant voice. But the Council has not yet met.

The so-called unity government is hardly unified. Tsvangirai and many of his supporters believe that Mugabe's many violations cannot continue indefinitely, and that ZANU-PF backers will soon realize that Mugabe's malevolent hand must be stayed. Tsvangirai, in other words, is attempting to introduce democracy across the board in Zimbabwe by gradual accretion, assuming that right will surely triumph.

But Mugabe, insufferably confident and arrogant at 85, hardly wants to be upstaged by his much younger prime minister. He seeks to protect himself and his security cronies from being investigated for corrupt dealings and human rights abuses. The destruction of a prosperous, largely democratic Zimbabwe happened on their watch. The blood of thousands is on their hands.

Washington needs to back Tsvangirai vigorously. Clinton should pressure the new South African government and the South African Development Community to remove Mugabe. She could use the moral power of her office to impress upon African national leaders that Mugabe must go and the unity government be led exclusively by Tsvangirai. But it is too soon to supply substantial aid to a nation-state still manipulated by Mugabe's despotism.

Robert I. Rotberg directs Harvard Kennedy School's Program on Intrastate Conflict and is president of the World Peace Foundation.

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