Zimbabwe's 100-day plan to lift economic embargo, court donors

The government says it will ease media ban as part of an effort to reengage with the West. But the US and Europe are dubious.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (l.) and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai opened a three-day conference in Victoria Falls with a handshake. Western donors are looking for more evidence of unity, cooperation, and stability in the country.
Children walked past rain water and sewage near Harare, Zimbabwe, on Tuesday. Health officials link large cholera outbreaks in across Zimbabwe with the contamination of water supplies by unsanitary disposal of sewage. Part of the initiative to reengage with the West, also designed to revive the economy, would introduce greater freedom and ownership rules for the news media, improved prison conditions, and a possible new constitution.

On Sunday, at a special three-day conference in a Victoria Falls luxury hotel, Zimbabwe's government ministers said they'd given themselves 100 days to end the nation's international isolation by normalizing relations with the European Union (EU), Britain, the US, and white Commonwealth countries.

"Reengagement of the broader international community, including the US and multilateral institutions, will be a priority of the government in the next 100 days," said Gorden Moyo, minister of state in the office of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, told Reuters at the conference.

Part of the initiative, also designed to revive the economy, would introduce greater freedom and ownership rules for the news media, improved prison conditions, and a possible new constitution.

In return, the unity government made up of President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and Mr. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change is seeking $8.5 billion from international donors for its short-term emergency recovery program.

West looking for real change

But analysts interviewed for this article are skeptical that the plan alone will induce Western donors, who seek evidence of real change within the shattered country, to dispense much aid immediately.

"Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe both realize they need foreign money to reverse the economic situation in Zimbabwe, and the only way they can do that is to show unity and cooperate," says John Akokpari, a senior lecturer in political studies at the University of Cape Town.

A key need, adds Dr. Akokpari, is to strengthen the rule of law in Zimbabwe, where invasions of white-owned farms continue by so-called war veterans who are egged on by Mr. Mugabe. There are only an estimated 100 white commercial farmers left in Zimbabwe, down from 4,500 when the president began his controversial land seizures in 2000. Tsvangirai warned two weeks ago that he would take "tough action" against invasions in the future, but farm leaders say the invasions are continuing and are going unpunished.

"Unfortunately, Mugabe has shown to be unpredictable in the past, making concessionary statements on the one hand and then criticizing the West and encouraging farm invasions on the other," says Akokpari. Mugabe, he adds, must first seek support from the Southern Africa Development Community and then reach out to the West. "If they can convince Great Britain, I think the others will follow. But I think we're talking weeks if not months, before a decision."

Catch-22 for Zimbabwe

The US and EU maintain visa bans and asset freezes on individuals and companies linked to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, as well as embargoes on the sale of arms and equipment that could be used for internal repression.

Before halting sanctions and unblocking aid, they have said they're waiting to see whether Mugabe is serious about sharing power with Tsvangirai in the unity government that took office in February. Tsvangirai left the talks on Saturday after receiving news of that his grandson, a toddler, had drowned, less than a month after his wife, Susan, died in a car crash that he himself survived.

But Cheryl Hendricks, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, says the signs for Zimbabwe's immediate future do not look promising.

"The West does not want to come to the party unless the new government can provide stability. But without resources, it's difficult to see them providing stability, so they're in a catch-22 situation," she says. "The government's 'dollarization' of the economy seems to have brought some stability to the economy but they still need foreign currency to pay civil servants' wages."

Also, Dr. Hendricks adds, the West is looking for the government, whose agenda is still largely driven by senior ZANU-PF politicians, to reintroduce respect for human rights, reorganize the security sector, tackle corruption, and deal with ongoing violence. She estimates that the unity government has a year to tackle those problems before civil strife and possible riots break out.

Zimbabwe promises to increase press freedom

At the conference, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, a member of Mugabe's ZANU-PF, said there could be relaxation of media rules: "There was an agreement to review the media policy so as to create a climate where divergent voices will be heard. We want to see a multiplicity of media houses."

In 2002, Mugabe introduced stringent media laws that banned foreign reporters and privately owned daily newspapers, in particular the famously critical Daily News.

"It is not surprising [that] countries are skeptical," says Akokpari of the University of Cape Town. "I am cautious about making predictions, but I'd say I am mildly optimistic about the future."

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