Can a regional summit break Zimbabwe's crisis deadlock?

Leaders from Southern Africa began emergency talks in Swaziland on Monday.

Philimon bulawayo/Reuters
Resolve it, please: Zimbabwean women held a minidemonstration inside the Rainbow Towers Hotel in the capital, Harare, last week. A regional emergency summit started Monday.

In theory, Zimbabwe has a coalition government in which the two main parties have agreed to share power equally.

In reality, the troubled nation's top leaders have been deadlocked over how to share ministries for several weeks, worsening an economy where fuel and food are scarce and inflation stands at 231 million percent.

Last week, the long-ruling party of President Robert Mugabe, ZANU-PF, allotted itself all the chief financial and military ministries and left its opponents less-important ministries such as sports, arts and culture, and constitutional and parliamentary affairs. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has dismissed this as unacceptable and warned that the Sept. 15 power-sharing agreement is in jeopardy.

On Monday, regional leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) kicked off an emergency summit in tiny Swaziland to get the two sides to agree on a joint cabinet and a fair allocation of ministries. Newly inaugurated South African President Kgalema Motlanthe – the current chair of SADC, who is seen as less sympathetic to Mr. Mugabe than former South African president and Zimbabwe mediator, Thabo Mbeki – is leading a delegation to the summit, prompting fresh hope that talks can be revived.

"That is the last hope, for SADC to insist on a proper sharing of power. If Mugabe gets the military, then Tsvangirai should get the police," says Raymond Louw, editor of the Southern Africa Report in Johannesburg. "What alternative is there for Tsvangirai? The only other thing is to give up, and then Mugabe takes all the power."

Zimbabwe's seven-month-long political crisis has been a test of patience for ordinary Zimbabweans, who voted nearly 2 to 1 in favor of Mr. Tsvangirai against Mugabe in the first round of elections held on March 29, but who now struggle to feed their families. Few regional leaders seem to know how to break the impasse – the neighboring country of Botswana urges deep sanctions against Mugabe, while regional mediator Mr. Mbeki calls for patient negotiation. But a continuation of the crisis puts an unbearable economic burden on the entire region. More than 4 million Zimbabwean refugees have fled to other countries, 3 million of them to South Africa alone.

Until negotiators made a breakthrough on Sept. 15, with a signed power-sharing agreement, the previous seven months had provided little hope that the crisis could be resolved. Tsvangirai insisted that he should have been named president, since the first round of the elections were relatively free of intimidation and manipulation. Mugabe claims he won the second round of the elections, even though he in fact ran unopposed. Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round because of Mugabe's brutal use of police and armed militias to intimidate opposition supporters.

Small wonder, then, that today's main sticking point is the Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls the police. Tsvangirai's supporters say the opposition must oversee the police in order to prevent further abuse by Mugabe. They also insist on control of the Ministry of Finance, since Mugabe's henchmen have generally used that ministry to bankroll their own business deals and to print currency to keep the economy going.

"Without Finance, and without Home Affairs, there is no deal," says Gordon Moyo, a pro-democracy activist in Bulawayo and a senior adviser to Tsvangirai. "Zimbabwe needs an extensive influx of funds; you can't reconstruct Zimbabwe without foreign funds. There is no way the international community, the World Bank, the [International Monetary Fund], the donor countries are going to channel funds to anything that has a ZANU-PF odor, a ZANU-PF smell to it. They have totally failed to manage funds."

Yet Mugabe's ZANU-PF have insisted that Home Affairs is nonnegotiable. Before the elections, chiefs of the Army, Air Force, and police all insisted that Mugabe had to stay on as president, regardless of the election results. Insiders in the ZANU-PF said that senior military officials worry that a Tsvangirai-controlled police force could be used to arrest them and send them before the International Criminal Tribunal to face human rights charges, similar to those lodged against Liberian President Charles Taylor.

With no guarantees in place to reassure the military chiefs, Mugabe's party is unlikely to give up the police. And with so much to gain from controlling the Zimbabwean currency, they have no reason to budge on control of the Ministry of Finance.

The only solution at this stage would be for regional mediators, led by a weakened former South African president Thabo Mbeki, to insist on a fairer sharing of power. Yet, during the past seven months of negotiation, Mbeki has refused to take a hard line with Mugabe.

"You have a situation that looks like power-sharing, but that allows [the ruling party] to carry on doing what they want to do, but with some junior partner in government," says Steven Friedman, a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa. "The basic reality is that you have a ruling group that has maintained its power through the police and the military, and maintained its economic well-being through manipulation of the currency through the Ministry of Finance. I don't think anything will change that."

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