Zimbabwe's hard-fought-for political settlement was in danger of running into a wall of intransigence at the inaugural meeting convened of the opposing government officials of President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) parties.
In a shaky start to the unity government's assumption of control over the country's affairs, a series of violations of the agreement erupted before the new leaders sat down for their first assembly on mid-February.
In the most serious, an MDC nominated deputy minister was arrested and jailed, and later charged with terrorism, and farming land was seized by President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party in defiance of the accord.
The unity cabinet of 33 ministers has 14 from Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change and three from a breakaway opposition faction led by Arthur Mutambara. Mugabe has 15 ministers. The highly contentious issue of who was going to be in charge of the security forces and which had been a major bone of contention, was finally resolved by placing the Home Ministry, which controls the police directly under both Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
Leaders of the new multi-party government confronted one another stony-faced as the first meeting of the almost-complete cabinet assembled for a photo opportunity for the world media. Missing was the MDM's treasurer and deputy agricultural minister nominee, former Zimbabwe farm owner Roy Bennett. He had been bundled off on a private plane that had landed at his home city of Mutare, near the Mozambique border in eastern Zimbabwe. Bennett was charged with treason and carted off to the Mutare Central Prison cells. The charges were changed five times before he finally came before a magistrate four days later. He was remanded in police custody for two weeks before a High Court hearing on charges of "a reasonable assumption of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism". The MDC promptly labelled the accusations as 'trumped-up' and an attempt by Mugabe hardliners to disrupt the implementation of the unity administration. Tsvangirai appeared surprised at Bennett's arrest and incarceration. He apparently had not been informed of the arrest despite sharing responsibility for the Home Affairs portfolio. If he took any action it was done behind the scenes and no statement on the matter was released by the MDM.
Mugabe and Tsvangirai met after the cabinet assembly to try and resolve what was termed by party sources as 'a number of huge obstacles' standing in the way of smooth functioning of the new joint structure. These apparently concerned the continued detention of 30 MDC members, issues of accountability, the rule of law and human rights.
Tsvangirai also avoided comment on the seizure of Yarrowdale Farm, a highly-productive 480ha commercial agricultural enterprise growing soya and seed maize. The farm confiscation directly defies the land acquirement aspects of the agreement. The company said in a statement that a group arrived at the farm harassing employees and demanding that the farm houses be vacated for them to occupy.
Under the power-sharing agreement Zanu-PF has control of agriculture, although the arrested Roy Bennett is the MDC's choice of deputy minister (See box). Neither Zanu-PF nor the MDC had commented on the farm seizure by the time we went to press.
Coinciding with the uneasy cabinet meeting was an announcement by Medecins San Frontieres (MSF), a French-based international healthcare NGO, that the outbreak of cholera on Zimbabwe's southern border was infecting one Zimbabwean every minute and that by mid-February the infection incidence had probably exceeded 300,000 people, with the death rate at over 4,000.
MSF said the cholera epidemic was just the most visible evidence of the collapse of Zimbabwe's health system. It called on both international donors and the Zimbabwean government to do more, saying other epidemic disease outbreaks were possible. The virtually non-functioning commercial agricultural sector has resulted in a looming hunger crisis which has left up to seven million people, more than half the population, dependent on foreign handouts.
The US, UK and EU voiced doubts about the sincerity of the deal and stressed that Aid would not be forthcoming, nor sanctions against the Mugabe regime lifted, until they were assured of Zanu-PF's genuine compliance. The US has also said it will not accept any political arrangement which leaves Mugabe as head of state.
Both the US and EU subsequently added substance to their disapproval of the imposed deal by slapping more sanctions on Mugabe and his supporters.
The SADC acts
Before the agreement, an SADC majority bulldozed the recommendations through against the protestations of Presidents Ian Khama (Botswana), Jakaya Kikwete (Tanzania) and Rupiah Banda (Zambia), who were in favour of new internationally supervised elections to settle the question of political legitimacy once and for all.
The MDC explained to international governments that Tsvangirai's signing did not mean he fully agreed with all the activity.
That is an "illusionary assertion" the MDC said in a statement. "For the record," it said, " [party president] Tsvangirai did not agree with the position of SADC. Outstanding issues were not treated with the justice and fairness we expected."
Botswana subsequently issued a statement supporting the SADC recommendations "to assist parties to the global political agreement to move forward the process of resolving the crisis of legitimacy in Zimbabwe and put an end to the suffering and difficult challenges facing the people" of the country.
The two MDC factions and Zanu-PF were to form a Joint Monitoring and Implementation Commission (Jomic) tasked with implementing the agreements reached by the three parties and investigating allegations of breaches.
Three important issues, considered critical to the MDC, were glossed over by the SADC facilitators and left for later resolution by the parties.
A BBC report attributes a cautious optimism by white farmers hopeful of returning to the land to the number of concessions in the proposed settlement, which calls for an audit of the land to eliminate "multiple farm ownerships".
The MDC says it can prove that much of the 11m hectares of prime farmland taken from 4,000 mainly white farmers were given to high-ups in the ruling Zanu-PF party. The deal also says that all Zimbabweans can be considered for land "irrespective of race, gender, religion, ethnicity or political affiliation". The agreement also provides for the security of tenure guarantees to land holders as key to rebooting the sector.
"We still love the country," says one white farmer who lost his land. "If there is a chance to get back to productive farming without political interference and without the continuous threat of violence, I really believe that a lot of white farmers would come back."
After the signing ceremony, Zimbabwe's deputy information minister Bright Matonga told reporters not to be confused about who remained in charge in Zimbabwe. "President Robert Mugabe is the executive president. That means he is the boss, and the only boss."
That is the voice of politics -which in the case of Zimbabwe can easily be labelled as utterly failed politics. Both parties need reminding that the principal purpose of politics in democratic systems is not occupying positions but ensuring the welfare of the people. Hopefully the politicians will come around to addressing this issue as well.
RELATED ARTICLE: Trials and tribulations of Roy Bennett
The hostile light in which Roy Bennett (above) is regarded by Zanu-PF is explained by his long-running opposition to, and defiance of, Mugabe and his political party. Hounded and attacked by Zanu-PF members, he earned Mugabe's anger by winning a seat in the 2000 election in Mugabe's back yard, soundly trouncing the Zanu-PF incumbent.
A former farm owner in the Chimanimani district near the city of Mutare, Bennett's Charleswood Estate in Chimanimani was confiscated by the government and resettled. In 2005, the 52-year-old politician was released from Chikurubi Prison after spending eight months of a 12-month sentence in custody. He had been jailed for fighting with a Zanu-PF member of parliament in the House.
During the MDC split over the proposed boycott of elections to the Zimbabwe Senate in 2005, Bennett sided with MDC's Tsvangirai in support of the boycott. Fearing for the safety of his family, he sought and was granted asylum in South Africa.
He returned to Zimbabwe in February this year to join the unity government and was immediately arrested on the terrorism charges.…