Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The long, hard road to break free of an old regime


On the one hand, Zimbabwe's new 'inclusive government' is already making an
impact: reopening schools, cutting food costs. On the other, Mugabe's party
still maintains a grip on the central bank, the media and the judiciary.
Foreign donors are conflicted.

From Monday's Globe and Mail

March 16, 2009 at 4:45 AM EDT

HARARE - Zimbabwe's youngest cabinet minister is unapologetic about the new
Mercedes-Benz that he drives as he navigates the pothole-ridden streets of
this impoverished capital.

In a country where three-quarters of the population are dependent on foreign
food aid, a Mercedes is a luxury of almost unimaginable proportions. But the
fleet of expensive sedans was quickly accepted by opposition activists such
as Nelson Chamisa who were elevated into Zimbabwe's new unity cabinet last

Mr. Chamisa, 31, says he is cheered and celebrated by ordinary people who
see him in his luxury car. "It's a symbol of authority and power," he says.
"If you don't have it, people will think you don't have power. They feel
good when they see one of their own in power."

In truth, many Zimbabweans have questioned the costly limousines that were
adopted by their new cabinet ministers. But it's also true that the new
government has given a sense of hope and optimism to the vast majority of
Zimbabweans for the first time in years.

While the autocratic Robert Mugabe remains President, long-time opposition
leader Morgan Tsvangirai has become Prime Minister and fully half the
ministers in the new cabinet belong to his Movement for Democratic Change.

The new "inclusive government," as it is known, has racked up some
impressive achievements already. It has given wages to teachers and
soldiers, halted the world's worst inflation rate, dumped the worthless
Zimbabwe dollar and replaced it with foreign currency, cut the cost of food
by issuing new retail licences and boosting competition among grocery
stores, reopened schools and hospitals that had been closed for months and
freed many of the activists who had been imprisoned by the old regime.

Yet the ZANU-PF party of Mr. Mugabe has kept a tight grip on key
institutions such as the military, the judiciary, the central bank and the
state media. It continues to imprison many opposition activists, violating
the unity agreement. Not a single person has been prosecuted for the
estimated 200 deaths inflicted in a wave of brutal attacks on the opposition
last year.

Suspicion and paranoia are still rife. When a car crash injured Mr.
Tsvangirai and killed his wife Susan this month, many Zimbabweans assumed it
was a plot by the state security agents who are supposed to be guarding the
Prime Minister, despite Mr. Tsvangirai's statement that it was an accident.

Even after entering cabinet, Mr. Chamisa was unwilling to be seen talking to
a foreign journalist, with state spies watching everywhere, so he drove his
Mercedes to a private home for his interview with The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Mugabe himself has boasted that he is "still in control" of the new
government. The MDC says it is waging a tough battle inside the government
to weaken the grip of the President's loyalists. Reforms have been further
delayed by the death of Mr. Tsvangirai's wife, a major blow to the MDC

"This is going to be a very slow and painful process," says Alec
Muchadehama, a prominent human-rights lawyer who defended many of the
opposition members in court after they were imprisoned last year.

Only about half of the 40 activists who were abducted and imprisoned last
fall have been released so far, he noted. "ZANU-PF will continue to do what
it wants, as if nothing has happened, to show that they're still in
control," he says.

"They did not willingly enter the inclusive government. They had no choice,
because things had gotten so bad. There were no salaries, no water, no
electricity, and soldiers were looting. There would have been chaos very
soon. They desperately wanted the MDC to fix it by getting international
money. Mugabe is the biggest beneficiary."

Foreign donors are sympathetic to the new government, but they are
hesitating to give anything more than humanitarian aid until they are
convinced that it has broken free from the old regime. "Some of us - most -
are very skeptical," says a well-placed Western source in Harare. "It's a
conundrum for us."

The international donors, who are meeting in Washington this week to discuss
a strategy to help Zimbabwe, are considering a compromise aid package that
would provide wage subsidies to "top up" the salaries of Zimbabwe's nurses
and teachers for the next four to six months.

"This government is Zimbabwe's best chance in 20 years," the Western source
said. "If we don't help them, the government will fail. That's what we
believe. The risk is enormous. The cupboard is bare - there is nothing."

In fact, MDC insiders confirm that the financial crisis is mounting. The new
government is receiving only $10-million a month in tax revenue, while its
payroll costs and other expenses amount to $100-million a month.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have sent a mission to
Zimbabwe for the first time since 2006 to see whether conditions are right
for major loans to the new government. Analysts expect that it will signal a
willingness to help.

The Canadian government, for its part, is reluctant to send financial aid to
Zimbabwe because it is not a "country of focus" under a new federal policy
that gives preference to 20 developing countries around the world. But
Canada instead could send consultants or advisers to strengthen the new
government, which is so impoverished that it doesn't even have Internet
access in its ministries.

Before Western donors agree to help the new government, they want assurances
that it will respect human rights and get rid of old Mugabe cronies such as
central bank governor Gideon Gono, the man who fuelled the world's highest
inflation rate by printing huge amounts of banknotes in denominations of up
to 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollars.

Mr. Gono remains defiant, still entrenched in his central bank stronghold
and showing no sign of leaving. But the MDC has slashed his control of state
revenue, halting his gold sales and abolishing the retail licence fees that
previously went to the central bank. "We've cut Gono's legs off," a senior
MDC official says. "We'll get his scalp. There's no doubt."

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the ZANU-PF loyalists
are trying hard to sabotage the unity government. "But we are not going to
withdraw from the deal, no matter what happens," he says.
"The Prime Minister's office is increasingly in charge. It's like the
beaches of Normandy - we're occupying a beachhead, and now we're fighting
our way inland. It's like hand-to-hand combat."

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