Africa's Worst Job

By Johnson, Scott | Newsweek International, October 5, 2009 | Go to article overview

Africa's Worst Job


Johnson, Scott, Newsweek International


Byline: Scott Johnson

High on the sixth floor of a drab building in downtown Harare sits Morgan Tsvangirai. Dim and barren, his office is a far cry from the digs most prime ministers enjoy. But Tsvangirai is far from most prime ministers. If he needs any reminder of this, there, on his otherwise bare office wall, hangs an elegantly framed portrait of Robert Mugabe: the dictator Tsvangirai has tried to overthrow for more than a decade and with whom he now shares power. Tsvangirai isn't intimidated by the gaze of his nemesis, the last of Africa's Big Men. "He's not the only one who can watch," Tsvangirai says. "I'm looking right back. I'm watching him too."

The collaboration between these two men is as unlikely as it is uncomfortable. The result of a deal struck in February under international pressure after elections that most think Tsvangirai won but Mugabe tried to steal, it is an almost unprecedented arrangement: an emblematic dictator ceding partial power to a hated insurgent in a last-ditch bid to shape his legacy. Neither man trusts the other and neither has taken to their forced cohabitation easily. "Can you imagine [working with] someone who has threatened your very existence?" asks Tsvangirai, whose face bears the emotional and physical wounds of their combat. "Sitting down in the same room? It's unimaginable," he says. Yet that's precisely what they're doing.

As prime minister, Tsvangirai has finally gone from being Zimbabwe's public enemy No. 1 to an officeholder with real executive muscle. Yet his challenge is enormous: reforming the economy with limited power, convincing skeptics that Zimbabwe is a good investment, and trying to ease out Mugabe without destabilizing the regime. And for every gain there have been terrible losses. A week after the election, Susan Tsvangirai--his wife of 31 years and his most trusted adviser--was killed in a car crash many think Mugabe engineered. Tsvangirai has met with Barack Obama in the White House, but he struggles to enact the simplest laws at home. Mugabe loyalists still control the attorney general's office, all the major security portfolios, and the state-run media. Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has fragmented, and its members continue to be threatened and jailed.

So far, the prime minister has focused primarily on stabilizing the economy, to some success. Within weeks of taking power, he replaced the Zimbabwean dollar with the U.S. one, ending years of fiscal chaos and an inflation rate in the millions. The results were immediate: industrial production shot up, and after years of decline, the economy has grown by 3.7 percent this year, according to the World Bank. Zimbabwe is now a changed place in many ways. Under the power--sharing deal, MDC officials took over key posts such as the ministries of finance and planning. The sense of economic panic that once prevailed, when the price of bread could double in a few hours, is gone. Ordinary people seem to enjoy a newfound sense of routine. Journalists (including this one) can work fairly freely, and while the intimidation of MDC supporters continues in some areas, it's a far cry from the mayhem that prevailed last year.

Tsvangirai has even managed to craft a working relationship with the president. "Mugabe's work over the last few years is indefensible, but we've agreed to work together," says Tsvangirai. "The wheel is turning slowly." The two men now meet every Monday morning in Mugabe's office, where they confer in a mixture of English and Shona. They ask about each other's families. Little by little, Tsvangirai has begun to raise the most delicate issues, including Mugabe's record corruption and abuse. "He doesn't want to own up to that," Tsvangirai says, "but I confront him, I do. He denies it. I try to bring the evidence, but he denies those things."

Indeed, in many ways the battle to control Zimbabwe remains as fierce as ever. The MDC controls Parliament, but just barely. …

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