The last two weeks have provided much analytical fodder for Zimbabwe’s many outside observers. On Wednesday, 11 February, MDC party and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister, the culmination of a drawn-out power-sharing accord process that began last July. But two days later, the MDC’s nominee for deputy minister of agriculture, Roy Bennett, was imprisoned on charges including supporting terrorism, a move that many perceive as an attempt to scuttle the power-sharing agreement.
The prime minister’s oath was administered by President Robert Mugabe, who has dominated the political, social, and economic life of Zimbabwe’s thirteen million citizens since 1980. Tsvangirai earned a plurality of votes in the first round of the 2008 presidential election, but not enough to win outright. Realizing that he would lose the run-off, Mugabe initiated a reign of terror against MDC supporters, and later claimed to have won 86% of the second-round vote in June. It took the international community three months of intense pressure – including sanctions against Zimbabwe and the freezing of administration members’ accounts abroad – to force Mugabe to accept a power sharing agreement whereby Tsvangirai would become prime minister and appoint a number of cabinet ministers. Even then, negotiations between Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, and the MDC came essentially to a stand-still while ZANU-PF refused to relinquish any meaningful cabinet positions. Further international pressure was required to make ZANU-PF relinquish fifteen cabinet posts.
Bennett has been charged with “illegal possession of arms for the purposes of committing banditry, insurgency, and terrorism,” for which he could face a life sentence. The charges are related to the discovery of an arms cache in the home of Peter Michael Hitschmann in 2006, and the government maintains that the two men were conspiring together. Bennett, like many MDC supporters, has been detained and tortured repeatedly by Zimbabwean security forces. He also spent eight months in prison in 2004 for assaulting the former justice minister during a debate in parliament. Mugabe’s choice of target is unsurprising: his traditional bogeymen and scapegoats are white land-owners like Bennett. Tsvangirai has suggested that the move may be a deliberate attempt by ZANU-PF to scuttle the deal, theorizing that some party members are fearful of being prosecuted for human rights violations committed during Mugabe’s long tyranny. The fact that Mugabe celebrated his 85th birthday on Saturday contributes to a sense of unease about the future among his supporters. The apparent seizure of scores of white-owned farms in the last few days might well be related to fears that ZANU-PF members better take full advantage of their untrammeled power while they still can.
The major question is what the MDC will be able to actually do with the power it has wrested from ZANU-PF. The home affairs post is the most meaningful concession that MDC was allowed: it is the ministry that controls the police force. Zimbabwe’s police, like every other part of its government, are deeply corrupt and form a key part of Mugabe’s powerful patronage network. The head of the police force even stated prior to the run-off that he would not allow the opposition to take over. Moreover, the military and the ministries of defense, foreign affairs, and national security remain entirely under Mugabe’s control, leaving him with the bulk of real power.
In terms of governance, the MDC’s appointment of Tendai Biti as minister of finance is a good sign for a country where half the population requires food aid and the currency has been devalued to utter worthlessness in recent years. London’s Daily Telegraph calls Biti “a top lawyer widely regarded as incorruptible and one of the MDC's leading lights.” But more disappointment could await: the real power to make economic policy and support the currency has been arrogated to the discredited governor of the Reserve Bank, Gideon Gono, who has been reappointed for another five years.
Outside of the controversy surrounding his arrest, Roy Bennett is a potentially interesting candidate for deputy minister of agriculture. Zimbabwean agriculture is in desperate need of help. The government began seizing farm land from whites – including Mr. Bennett’s – in 2000 and redistributing it to war veterans and supporters of Mugabe and ZANU-PF. The results were catastrophic: output fell dramatically, and with it, Zimbabwe’s GDP and living standards.
Bennett’s is not the only appointment to a very, very difficult position. MDC also chose the ministers of health and public services. The lack of public services in Zimbabwe is an enormous problem, given the staggering rates of lethal disease. Three thousand people have died from cholera in Zimbabwe in the past few months in an outbreak which Mugabe alternately called imaginary, under control, and an attempt by the imperial forces of England to re-colonize Zimbabwe. In addition, more than 2.5 million people in Zimbabwe are infected with HIV. In this light, ZANU-PF’s power-sharing agreement has an air of dumping the consequences of decades of corruption on the shoulders of the MDC.
MDC did manage to collect a few cabinet positions that could become meaningful. It is surprising that an increasingly despotic regime would surrender control of the Ministry for Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs, although Mugabe’s control of the military could easily make the rule of law irrelevant at any moment. MDC also gained control of the Information Ministry, which has censored – even violently suppressed – opposition voices. Another astounding gain for MDC is the Ministry of State Enterprises, Anti-Monopoly and Anti-Corruption. Graft and patronage are the linchpins of ZANU-PF’s strength, and it is surprising that they would give MDC a weapon to attack them. One powerful ministry that it makes sense, however, for Mugabe to relinquish is that of economic development, where an MDC member will have far more credibility with the foreign donors Zimbabwe is totally reliant upon.
The degree of change represented by the swearing-in of Morgan Tsvangirai, in a nation that has suffered terribly under the rule of an aging despot, is hard to overstate. Even though it seems like MDC’s cabinet ministers inherit more catastrophes than positions with real potential, it is nonetheless an improvement from a government dominated entirely by a single party. Given Mugabe’s age, ZANU-PF’s utter ossification, and Zimbabwe’s near collapse, there is little question that change will eventually come. What comes next, however, gives reason for fear as well. For Zimbabwe’s citizens to have any hope, the MDC has no choice but to prove it is actually capable of governing; the alternative is too depressing to contemplate.