Is Mugabe sabotaging Zimbabwe's coalition government?

Opposition MPs have recently been jailed, including Deputy Agriculture Minister Roy Bennett, who was arrested on charges of 'banditry and terrorism.' Critics say the charges are 'trumped up.'

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
Free them! Opposition supporters protested the jailing of their members of parliament Sunday in Harare.

The first weeks of Zimbabwe's coalition government – a power-sharing agreement where power is unequally shared – have not gone well.

True, Morgan Tsvangirai, the country's new prime minister and President Robert Mugabe's sworn enemy, recently had a successful visit to South Africa, laying out a $5 billion plan to reconstruct Zimbabwe. But members of Mr. Tsvangirai's own party remain in jail, including Deputy Agriculture Minister Roy Bennett, who was arrested on charges of "banditry and terrorism."

And supporters of Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party have invaded dozens of farms belonging to the few remaining white farmers in Zimbabwe. And across the country, squabbling between members of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and ZANU-PF – ostensibly allies in government – has turned increasingly violent.

The arrest Mr. Bennett is of key concern for the MDC, who describe the charges of banditry as "trumped up." Bennett was granted bail on Tuesday afternoon by the Harare High Court, only to have the attorney general appeal the decision, forcing Bennett to remain in Mutare Prison for an additional week, at least.

"The continuous detention of [Bennett] is a provocation of the highest order, and there seems to be a clear attempt to scuttle the power-sharing government," says Nqobizitha Mlilo, an MDC spokesman based in Johannesburg. "But we remain committed to an inclusive government and we will do everything in our power to hold it together for the betterment of the Zimbabwe people."

But, he warned, "our patience is not inexhaustible."

The MDC's suspicions about ZANU-PF, and whether it would truly share power, were one of the main sticking points that delayed the creation of this power-sharing government for 10 months.

Many experts say that the current round of violence and arrests of MDC members is a deliberate statement on the part of Mugabe.

"The message is that the old sheriff is still in charge," says Aubrey Matshiqi, a senior analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg.

Despite having effectively lost control of Parliament, and lost much of his legitimacy as Zimbabwe's elected president, Mugabe has held onto the military, the intelligence, and the security branches.

While the MDC shares control of the Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls the police, most of the ministry's top officials and the top police officials remain loyal to Mugabe.

"The balance of forces favors ZANU-PF, which retains all the repressive powers of the state," says Mr. Matshiqi. Speaking of the new position of prime minister, given to Tsvangirai, he adds, "the post of prime minister is nothing but a toy telephone."

While ZANU-PF may be accused of provoking a breakup of government, ZANU-PF also benefits from being a member of a coalition government, Matshiqi says. "ZANU gets time to rebuild itself. It gives Mugabe and his generation the opportunity to manage the transition to the next leaders of the ZANU-PF. ZANU can also rebuild what ties it has to its dwindling rural support base."

As for trying to understand Mugabe's provocative actions, Matshiqi chuckles, "Sometimes you try to find a logic in tyranny, and it's not always possible. The power of tyranny is the logic, that is what is happening in Zimbabwe."

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