JOHANNESBURG – Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai took the oath of office as prime minister on Wednesday, finally bringing his party into a coalition government with his bitter rival, President Robert Mugabe.
Wednesday's swearing-in ceremony, officiated by President Mugabe, put an end to 10 months of political stalemate, during which the country slid deeper into economic collapse, the inflation rate rose to nearly 300 million percent, unemployment rates rose to 90 percent, schools, hospitals and water systems ceased to function, and cholera in the capital city of Harare claimed the lives of over 3,400 people.
For 10 months, following Zimbabwe's closest and most contentious national elections ever, it didn't look like the country's two rival parties would ever agree to work together. In that election, held March 29 last year, Zimbabwean voters resoundingly rejected another term for Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party, which has ruled Zimbabwe since achieving the country's liberation from white rule in 1980. But because Tsvangirai's party failed to obtain a more-than 50 percent majority in a crowded field of opposition candidates, he was forced into a runoff. Tsvangirai pulled out of that runoff after a terror campaign by pro-Mugabe militias killed off dozens of opposition party workers.
Throughout much of 2008, opposition party workers and human rights activists have been beaten, arrested, tortured, and in some cases killed. In the fall, Mugabe accused his neighboring country of Botswana of training rebels to carry out acts of sabotage in Zimbabwe, and arrested top opposition officials for treason.
Following on the heels of a power-sharing agreement in Kenya earlier in 2008, many African leaders appealed to Mugabe and Tsvangirai to put their rivalry aside for the good of the country. Tsvangirai openly questioned whether he could get a fair deal, negotiated by South African President Thabo Mbeki, a close ally of Mugabe. On Sept. 15, the two leaders signed an agreement to form a power-sharing agreement, but then Mugabe nearly poisoned the deal by allotting most of the top cabinet seats to members of his own party.
Now that Tsvangirai has joined the government, he risks the same fate of other opposition leaders who have been swallowed up and neutralized by Mugabe's powerful ZANU-PF party. But Adam Habib, a political analyst and vice chancellor at the University of Johannesburg, says that Tsvangirai should move quickly to sort out some of Zimbabwe's problems, and thereby create more political room for maneuver.
"The first thing he should do is get on a plane to London and New York, and get some chemicals and engineers and funding and start to sort out Zimbabwe's cholera epidemic," says Mr. Habib. "If he makes quick work of that, he can broaden the space for himself and for Zimbabwe" and build credibility that he is a man who can get things done.
While he says the power-sharing deal with Mugabe is hardly ideal – in effect, creating incentives for other African despots who lose elections to simply hold onto power and use violence in order to get a better deal – Habib says the world simply didn't have a better choice.
"Mugabe was a thug with guns, and we didn't have any other options," he says. "If MDC didn't take this deal, the only thing they could do was to launch a people's revolution as you have in eastern Europe, but the military was too cohesive in Zimbabwe, and they would have been slaughtered."
"This is the first step, and now Tsvangirai is going to need to be more astute," Habib says.