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Zimbabwe's unity government faces huge hurdles

The nation's finances are dire and no aid is in sight; services such as health, power and water are paralyzed; and Mugabe, who still calls the shots, seems more fond of power plays than power-sharing.

March 11, 2009|Robyn Dixon

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Why are all those women carrying buckets of water on their heads?

That was the first riddle that David Coltart, Zimbabwe's new education minister, faced last month as he walked into his high-rise headquarters.

"The reason is that the whole of the Ministry of Education, 18 floors, has no water in it. So my first, immediate task was to get the pump repaired. If you walk down the stairwells you will gag, the stench is so bad on some floors," Coltart said in an interview in his new office. (Most of the bathrooms still weren't working.)

Until a few weeks ago, the Dickensian halls of the Education Ministry belonged to President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. Now under the new "unity government," the ministry is run by his political opponents in the Movement for Democratic Change. The deal was forced on the MDC by African leaders to resolve a standoff over last year's disputed elections, in which ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority.

"It's like a dark hole of Calcutta," Coltart said.

Mugabe's legacy of busted plumbing and peeling paint is the least of the problems Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC party face in this shotgun marriage of a government: The country's finances are catastrophic; vital services such as health, education, power and water are paralyzed; and the man still calling the shots seems more fond of power plays than power sharing.

Tsvangirai promises reform and a better future, but he's trapped in a difficult situation. Without money from the West, his team has no hope of success. But he is unlikely to get that aid with Mugabe in power. And failure by Tsvangirai would suit Mugabe and his hard-line allies just fine.

The prime minister's effort to sell the unity government as a reform administration took a telling blow last week when President Obama ignored his call to end Western sanctions imposed against Mugabe and his cronies. Instead, the U.S. leader extended them another year.

A rare moment of real unity between the rivals has come as Tsvangirai faces his most difficult hour: the death of his wife of 31 years in a car accident. Mugabe visited Tsvangirai in the hospital the night of her death, staying for more than an hour.

At a memorial service Tuesday, Mugabe expressed grief and even referred to Tsvangirai by his first name -- a rare moment for a president who has shown open disdain for his prime minister.

"We are sincerely saddened by the death of Susan and we hope that Morgan will remain strong," Mugabe said. He called for an end to violence and said Zimbabweans needed to work peacefully together.

Yet political prisoners -- including several close allies of Tsvangirai -- remain in prison and power struggles continue.

The wrangling between ZANU-PF and the MDC over control of the public service sector could make or break Tsvangirai's bid for reform.

Last month, Mugabe infuriated Tsvangirai by unilaterally appointing the heads of public services. Tsvangirai put out a statement declaring the appointments null and void, but he lacks the power to reverse them.

Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe for 29 years, couldn't resist a snide prod at the MDC: "You must also grant that we have new people and they would be making a few mistakes. Well, if mistakes are outrageous, naturally they put people off. But we try to correct each other," he said in a recent Zimbabwean television interview. The MDC had assumed that control of public services resided with the Public Service Ministry, and the party made sure to win that portfolio in negotiations on the unity government. But it was wrong.

Once in government, MDC officials stumbled upon an inconspicuous bureaucrat named Mariyawanda Nzuwa; as chairman of the Public Service Commission, he has the power to hire and fire any public servant and to block senior appointments by the MDC.

MDC strategists say that Nzuwa is so powerful that he's Mugabe's de facto prime minister, a key ally in the battle to control top public servants and freeze out the MDC.

But nowhere is the dysfunctional marriage more strained than in the Home Affairs Ministry, which is now run by two ministers -- one MDC, the other ZANU-PF.

The MDC minister, Giles Mutsekwa, a former army major, is the lone opposition figure in the agency, which is in charge of the police. Mutsekwa has to grapple with both his ZANU-PF counterpart and the hard-line police commissioner, Augustine Chihuri, a bitter opponent of change.

Even Mutsekwa's personal assistant seems a problem. When the minister agreed to an interview with The Times recently, she briskly countermanded him.

Those kinds of power struggles, small and large, are unfolding every day, some behind closed doors, others in the headlines.

One way to get people's loyalty, the MDC figures, is to make sure they're paid. The first thing MDC Finance Minister Tendai Biti did was pay soldiers, police and other civil servants in foreign currency vouchers, a move designed to kick-start the economy, but also to win their support.

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