Zimbabwe: Tsvangirai’s Choice

12 February 2009

Zimbabwe: Tsvangirai’s Choice

By Gwynne Dyer

On 11 February, in Harare, Morgan Tsvangirai drank the poisoned chalice, knowing that it was poisoned. He was sworn in as prime minister of Zimbabwe, in a government that is still controlled by his deadly enemy, President Robert Mugabe. He must know that his chances of success, even of political survival, are close to nil.

“We are not joining Mugabe,” he said bravely. “This is part of a transitional relationship, negotiated. Mr Mugabe has executive authority. I have executive authority.” But Mugabe has exclusive control over the army and the police, which are regularly used to harrass, imprison, torture and kill Tsvangirai’s colleagues and supporters. He also controls the courts, through the justice ministry.

What Tsvangirai got was the finance ministry (although Mugabe’s man still controls the central bank) and the various social affairs ministries.

In effect, he can go looking for foreign aid, try to fix the broken economy, and bring suffering Zimbabweans what help he can, but Mugabe’s people still run the key ministries that have real power over people’s lives.

Few Zimbabweans foresaw this outcome when the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) unexpectedly won a majority in parliament and Tsvangirai won more votes than Mugabe in the election last March. It was an accident that only happened because ZANU, the overconfident ruling party, was less thorough than usual in intimidating the voters and rigging the count, but the apparent defeat of Mugabe’s 30-year-old regime awakened hope in the hearts of despairing Zimbabweans.

The hope was premature. The regime declared that Tsvangirai’s majority was not big enough to avoid a second round of voting, and then launched a campaign of violence against MDC officials and supporters that killed over two hundred people and injured thousands. Shortly before the second vote, Tsvangirai withdrew from the race to save MDC voters from a bloodbath on election day, and Mugabe was “re-elected” without opposition as the president of Zimbabwe.

That wasn’t the end of it, because Mugabe’s brutal, corrupt regime has not just ruined the Zimbabwean economy; it is dragging the whole southern African region down. Unemployment in Zimbabwe is 94 percent, the currency is so worthless that even street traders will only accept foreign currency, cholera is raging across the country, and average life expectancy is now the lowest in the world.

About one-third of Zimbabwe’s twelve million people have fled to South Africa in search of work (and dozens were murdered there last year by resentful South Africans who believed that they were taking South African jobs). In a region that is relatively prosperous and well-governed by African standards, Zimbabwe sticks out like a sore thumb — and that is a problem for the neighbours.

Foreign investors are famously ignorant about the distant places they invest in, and easily panic if something bad seems to be happening in the vicinity. The other members of the Southern African Development Community, the nine-country regional organisation, had to do something about the catastrophe of Zimbabwe because they were all at risk of being tarred with the same brush by those ignorant foreigners. So the SADC intervened — sort of.

Their intention was to force some sort of deal that ended the mess in Zimbabwe, but they had no real plan — and they were in awe of Mugabe’s history as one of main heroes in the liberation struggle a generation ago.

South Africa’s then-president Thabo Mbeki was particularly determined to ensure that the old man (Mugabe will be 85 next week) be treated with respect, even though he is a murderous tyrant.

So the SADC, rather than supporting Tsvangirai’s complaint that Mugabe had stolen the election, forced him last August to accept a “national unity” government in which he would inevitably be the junior partner. Tsvangirai did not even get agreement on which ministries the MDC would receive, although it was obvious that Mugabe would never willingly surrender control of his main instruments of repression, the army and the police.

The last six months have been filled with futile wrangling as Tsvangirai tried to wrest those ministries away from Mugabe, while the country sank ever deeper into poverty, hunger and disease. Now he has joined the government anyway, although Mugabe’s thugs were still arresting and torturing senior MDC members even last week.

Tsvangirai’s vision for how this might succeed, insofar as he has one, seems to be that his presence in the government will unleash a flood of foreign aid that will rescue Zimbabweans from their desperate plight.

Then his grateful fellow-citizens will vote for him in such overwhelming numbers in the election that the SADC has mandated for two years hence that even Mugabe’s vote-counters cannot invalidate it.

It isn’t going to happen. Western aid donors have been giving Zimbabwe nothing except food relief (two-thirds of the population depends on foreign food aid) because they assume that Mugabe’s cronies will steal anything else — and they see no reason to change their minds.

As Tsvangirai was being sworn in, Britain took the highly unusual step of placing an ad in the Zimbabwe press spelling out that fact: “It is unlikely that any government involving Mugabe will inspire donor confidence and attract the support it so badly needs.” But if the aid doesn’t flow, Tsvangirai will have nothing to show for his desperate gamble. Game, set and match to Mugabe. Pity about Zimbabwe.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“What…lives”; and