Sunday, February 15, 2009

Unity government off to rocky start in Zimbabwe

Months of political wrangling in Zimbabwe finally ended last Wednesday when opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai (the man many thought actually won the presidential elections last year) was sworn into the newly-created post of Prime Minister, completing a long-promised power-sharing agreement with President Robert Mugabe.

And by this weekend Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party was already trying to shatter the deal.

The national police, still under the control of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF faction, arrested Tsvangirai’s pick for Agriculture Minister Roy Bennett on charges that were first treason, and then were changed to terrorism. The police allege that Bennett planned to blow up a telecommunications station east of the capital city, Harare. Tsvangirai and his MDC party call the charges outrageous.

Bennett has a long, stormy history with Mugabe. Bennett in fact spent the last few years in exile in South Africa after the Zimbabwe government accused him of plotting to kill Mugabe. Bennett, who is white, had his farm stolen in 2003 as part of Mugabe’s “land reform” initiative, which was suppose to give black farmers access to agricultural land that was largely held by Zimbabwe’s white minority, but in reality was just a scheme to give gifts to some of Mugabe’s cronies. Few of these Mugabe insiders ever worked the land they were given, prompting the food crisis that currently grips Zimbabwe, which was once a net exporter of food to Southern Africa.

MDC party members are camped out around the police station where Bennett is being held to make sure he isn’t disappeared into the Zimbabwean hinterlands, while the MDC is saying the arrest shatters belief in the legitimacy of the power-sharing deal.

Ironically, Bennett was featured in a “From Our Own Correspondent” piece published by the BBC just before his arrest. The BBC’s Andrew Harding found a mix of fear and optimism on the streets of Zimbabwe following the swearing in of Tsvangirai as prime minister. Harding concludes though that it will likely be months before anyone knows how legitimately Mugabe’s faction will participate in the unity government. Bennett’s arrest though isn’t a positive first sign.
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