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Zimbabwe unity deal is fraying

President Robert Mugabe swears in more Cabinet ministers from his ZANU-PF party than had been agreed upon with Morgan Tsvangirai's opposition MDC. He also arrests an MDC government official.

February 14, 2009|Robyn Dixon

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — It was Day One for Zimbabwe's new government of national unity Friday, and already the paralysis had set in: The swearing-in ceremony that was supposed to usher in a new era of hope was delayed for hours by bitter squabbling.

And in a sign that hard-liners in President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party remain bitterly opposed to the new prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, security forces arrested senior Tsvangirai ally Roy Bennett and charged him with treason.

Bennett, who had been named a deputy agriculture minister, was taken to the Mutare police station in eastern Zimbabwe, according to the opposition. Police fired pistols to disperse protesters demanding Bennett's release, said a statement by Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change.

A later MDC statement said the charges against Bennett were scandalous, vexatious and politically motivated.

Tsvangirai, who opposed Mugabe for a decade, was sworn in to office Wednesday under a unity deal designed to resolve last year's disputed elections.

But on Friday, Mugabe tried to swear in more than 20 ministers from his own party, not the 15 agreed upon by the two sides. He ended up with 18 -- and even senior members of the MDC were confused about whether Mugabe's last-minute maneuvering had stripped them of a majority in the Cabinet.

"We are absolutely angry. We are furious. You can't talk about power sharing when people are being arrested," a senior MDC member said, speaking by phone from State House, the presidential residence, shortly before the swearing-in ceremony. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by the party to speak publicly. The party's official spokesman could not be reached.

Another senior MDC figure said that in addition to the 18 ZANU-PF ministers, 15 with the MDC and three with a smaller MDC faction were sworn in. It was not clear Friday whether some of these would be excluded from the Cabinet.

Analysts said the treason charges against Bennett and the wrangling over Cabinet positions were ominous signs. Bennett was charged just days after a judge threw out treason charges against another top MDC member, Tendai Biti.

"There's too much noise and too many false starts, none of which give a lot of confidence," said Jonathan Moyo, an independent member of parliament and former information minister under Mugabe. "Like all Zimbabweans, I am praying it will work, but I fear it will not."

Tsvangirai managed to secure the release of 30 political prisoners Thursday, only to see them swiftly arrested again a few hours later, the MDC said.

"It just seems very bizarre to me. I think it just highlights what we are up against," said Brian James, the MDC mayor of Mutare.

He said it was up to regional leaders in southern Africa to rescue the deal they helped negotiate.

Analyst Tony Reeler said it looked bad for MDC members to go ahead with the swearing-in when a top party member was arrested.

He said ZANU-PF had shown that it was not serious about the unity deal, which it repeatedly violated, and that Tsvangirai, as prime minister, should have been informed about the arrest of a top party official.

"They're treating Morgan Tsvangirai with contempt," he said.

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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