Will terrorism acquittal of MDC's Roy Bennett salvage Zimbabwe unity government?

Roy Bennett, a white commercial farmer and top figure in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was acquitted Monday of terrorism charges. He's offered to lower his profile, but can that boost prospects of Zimbabwe's unity government?

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Roy Bennett (c.), a top figure in Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), leaves the High Court in Harare, Monday, after he was acquitted of terrorism charges in Zimbabwe.

Roy Bennett, a top figure in Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was acquitted Monday of terrorism charges and of an alleged plot to overthrow the government of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe.

Mr. Bennett, a white commercial farmer who faced possible execution if convicted, had offered this past weekend to step down from his appointment as MDC’s choice as deputy minister for agriculture. He told The Guardian that he would not stand in the way of the "restoration and reconstruction" of Zimbabwe.

"A single post should not stop that process moving forward," he was quoted saying. "So if it meant [that I should] step aside completely and not be involved, and that would move the process forward towards a fresh election and towards democracy, I would be the first person to endorse that."

Bennett’s status has long been a stumbling block for the fragile coalition government of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe. Since the September 2008 power-sharing agreement, following shady April 2008 elections, Mr. Mugabe has refused to swear in Bennett citing Bennett’s pending criminal case. But analysts also say that Bennett’s selection for the agriculture ministry was sensitive because of the danger of him reversing Mugabe’s land-reform policies and the often violent seizure of white-owned farms by Mugabe’s supporters.

Could Bennett’s acquittal and his offer to step aside be part of a face-saving deal between Mugabe and Tsvangirai to move forward?

That’s unlikely, says Judy Smith-Hohn, a Zimbabwe analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria (a city also known as Tshwane).

“I think Roy Bennett’s offer to step aside is a major step, a real sign of willingness on the part of MDC to get this process moving again,” says Ms. Smith-Hohn. “Whether ZANU-PF [Mugabe’s party] is going to recognize that step, or continue to focus on the issue of sanctions, it is too early to say.”

Progress depends on AU, SADC

The only way Zimbabwe will resolve the current political impasse, she says, is if it is forced to do so by other African states, under the umbrellas of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community. “The only time ZANU-PF has compromised is when the [African Union] and [Southern African Development Community] had the same message, that you need to form a government of national unity,” says Smith-Hohn.

The AU and SADC need to send Mugabe the unified message that he must cooperate with his coalition partners if he wants sanctions lifted, says Smith-Hohn.

SADC’s current mediation process, led by South African President Jacob Zuma, seems to have stalled, but it has recently been joined by Congolese President Joseph Kabila, a close friend and supporter of Mugabe.

Whether this new energy by SADC will give a helpful shove to the mediation remains to be seen, of course, and Smith-Hohn warns that SADC remains deeply fragmented over whether to start speaking tough to Mugabe.

“[Mr. Kabila] is a longtime associate of Robert Mugabe, and he trained in Zimbabwe and has personal ties with Mugabe, so whether his involvement in the mediation is helpful or not is hard to say,” says Smith-Hohn. But removing Bennett as a negotiating point could help move the process forward, she says. “What is ZANU-PF going to do in return? That, we will see in the next few hours or days.”

Will Bennett stay or go?

There's also some question as to whether Bennett really will agree to step aside. He appeared to contradict his earlier message this weekend on Monday by saying: "Mugabe has to swear me in now. My party has made it very clear that they expect nothing less."

MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa affirmed this Monday, indicating that the MDC wants to test what Mugabe will do before deciding how prominent Bennett's future role should be.

"We have been vindicated. This was not prosecution but persecution," Mr. Chamisa said. "We are expecting that the natural thing will happen, that we will wake up with Bennett as deputy agriculture minister."


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