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Spasms in Zimbabwe’s body politic

Posted on Friday, 23 October 2009 08:04

In the Know features an interview, opinion or analysis from the people making the news in Africa each week.

The re-arrest of Zimbabwe’s deputy agriculture minister Roy Bennett on 14 October catapulted the country into a new political and constitutional crisis as Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change announced it was ‘disengaging’ from the government of national unity.

As Tsvangirai tours Southern Africa to push for regional intervention, Zimbabwean journalist Frank Chikowore says that the price of food has already started rising –but that opinion on the streets of Harare is divided over the pullout.

The weekly meeting of Zimbabwe’s cabinet on Tuesday 20 October was a depleted affair. Following a decision last week by the Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) to withdraw from the Government of National Unity, his ministers boycotted the meeting, holding their own at the party’s headquarters Harvest House. Only ministers from deputy prime minister Arthur Mutambara’s wing of the MDC sat down with those of President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF at the weekly cabinet.

The partial pullout by the MDC-T, sparked by the re-arrest of the party’s deputy agriculture minister Roy Bennett on terrorism charges, has created a political and constitutional crisis.

Mugabe and Mutambara alone cannot make binding decisions. The coalition government needs the buy-in of all the parties that are signatories to the Global Political Agreement (GPA) signed in September 2008 which paved the way for the GNU set up in February this year.

A disjointed cabinet creates loopholes in terms of financing government activities and policies, with the key to resources held by the finance minister Tendai Biti, who is from Tsvangirai’s MDC. Though Biti and his fellow MDC-T ministers are still performing their ministerial duties, they are not participating in cabinet meetings or the council of ministers and policy decisions are at a standstill.

Any investment in Zimbabwe is determined by the unity of the government and how the country’s money is managed. As long as there continues to be animosity between Biti and the central bank governor, Gideon Gono, the funds won’t come. Biti has said that issues surrounding a rescue package on offer from the IMF will be addressed in his budget speech to parliament scheduled for November, and that the country must wait until then to talk about any policy shifts in terms of government business.

Tsvangirai, Mutambara and Mugabe usually meet every Monday, but Tsvangirai refused to attend this week, setting off instead on a diplomatic offensive around Southern Africa to push for the intervention of Southern African Development Committee (SADC) which, alongside the African Union, was a guarantor to the GPA.

Opinion on the streets of Harare is divided. Some say that it was either ‘sink or swim’ for Tsvangirai, and that the decision to pull out was the best option if Mugabe did not honour his obligations. Others worry that by pulling out, the MDC-T has created room for Mugabe to make unilateral decisions.

But the majority don’t want to see the MDC-T pullout. People who had become used to having nothing to eat have seen bread and butter on their tables. Since Tsvangirai’s announcement on Friday, commodity prices have started going up again because of the uncertainty. A bottle of cooking oil, which cost $3 last week, is now selling for $5.

Under the terms of the GPA an election should automatically be held within 90 days if any of the parties officially withdraw from government. Mugabe cannot call an election unless Tsvangirai announces a total pullout – and so far it is only partial.

The MDC-T has been discussing whether to enforce a total withdrawal if Mugabe fails to honour his obligations. Other stumbling blocks include the unilateral appointment of the attorney-general, the failure of Mugabe to swear in transitional governors or dispatch ambassadors even though their names have been agreed.

Members of the MDC’s national council are trying to gauge if the situation on the ground allows them to pullout, or if it is too premature. They are still keen to dismantle ZANU-PF’s pillars of support before any election, including the Joint Operations Command composed of the army, the police and intelligence officers. They want to make sure conditions for free and fair elections are improved and a new constitution adopted that provides for supervision from the international community.

Mugabe himself has said little, although ZANU-PF’s deputy secretary for information Ephraim Masawi said that the party would not lose sleep over the MDC-T’s departure from the GNU.

Bennett, who was nominated for the post of deputy minister of agriculture by the MDC, is set for trial on 9 November. Most see the charges against him as trumped up, particularly as his portfolio might have dealt with the thorny issue of land redistribution. Added to the accusations against Bennett are those against finance minister Biti, who still faces charges of treason.

It remains to be seen whether Mugabe and Tsvangirai will agree any outstanding issues before Bennett’s trial. Any interference in the judicial system by ZANU-PF would cause even more problems for Tsvangirai.

Frank Chikowore is a Zimbabwean journalist based in Harare