Zimbabwe president signs deal, cedes some power

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, jubilant and jovial, signed a power-sharing agreement with his nemesis President Robert Mugabe and declared his "belief in Zimbabwe and its people runs deeper than the scars I bear from this struggle."

With some victims of state-sponsored violence still in casts or in jail, Tsvangirai acknowledged Monday it was important to remember the past and honor fallen comrades. But he urged his countrymen to join him in working to build "a new Zimbabwe."

Mugabe, who has never acknowledged the onslaught of state-sponsored violence on his opponents, said: "Whatever happened is history. Let us look into the future and craft a way."

Outside the convention center, supporters of the bitterly divided parties lobbed stones at each other. Police fired warning shots and baited attack dogs. But they were restrained and did not fire tear gas, raising hopes the repression of the past is getting under control.

"Morgan is now in charge! Now we will see change!" a group of Tsvangirai's supporters yelled joyously at a journalist.

For them, it seemed a great victory for Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, one that promises hope they can put food on the table.

But while Mugabe may be relaxing his iron hold after 28 years of autonomous rule, political observers say the signing of the power-sharing deal is not a victory for democracy in Africa.

Under the deal, Mugabe cedes some power to Tsvangirai, who is now prime minister. But Tsvangirai reports to Mugabe, who remains president and head of the Cabinet where his party has most seats -- 15 to 13 for Tsvangirai and three for Arthur Mutambara, leader of a faction that broke away from Tsvangirai's party.

For the first time, though, Mugabe is not autonomous. He must consult the prime minister before making decisions like appointing judges or dismissing parliament.

A similar deal in February ended post-election violence that killed more than 1,000 people in Kenya. But little progress has been made since then. The parties argued until April over how to divide the Cabinet and an ongoing paralysis shows no sign of any effort to fulfill promises such as stamping out corruption, building roads or cleaning up the police force.

Zimbabwe's politicians began discussions Monday on how to share Cabinet positions.

Mugabe, 84, has been in power since independence in 1980 and went from being praised as a liberator who freed the former British colony from minority white rule to being vilified as an autocrat. He and Tsvangirai, 56, have been enemies for a decade, and Tsvangirai has been jailed, beaten, tortured and tried for treason -- charges that were dismissed in court.

Political observers are raising concerns about an emerging trend in Africa -- one encouraging defeated rulers to cling to power through unity governments.

"There is a worrying phenomenon of more power-sharing deals," said Cheryl Hendricks, an analyst at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. "It shows that elections are not the way to get to power."

Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in March presidential elections, but not by enough to avoid a runoff. An onslaught of state-sponsored violence forced Tsvangirai to withdraw from the second election, and Mugabe was declared the winner in a vote widely denounced as a sham.

More than 100 opposition supporters were killed, thousands of people were beaten up and suffered broken limbs, and tens of thousands were forced from their homes.

In Kenya, election observers agree that both President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga cheated, so badly that it was impossible to say who had won the vote.

Both deals underpin just how shaky the foundations for democracy are in Africa.

Monday's signing in Zimbabwe was overseen by Swaziland's King Mswati III -- Africa's last absolute monarch who is in charge of the regional security organ responsible for nurturing democracy in the 14-nation Southern African Development Community.

Mswati is widely revered, but not by democrats who say parliamentary elections in Swaziland later this month are a sham because political parties are banned.

Angola has also played a key role in trying to mediate an end to Zimbabwe's crisis. The oil-rich nation this month held its first elections in 16 years, a parliamentary ballot. It has yet to democratically elect a president.

"We have a long way to go before democracy is entrenched in Africa," said Hendricks, the analyst.

Indeed, after signing, Mugabe warned in his Shona language that "this thing called democracy is a problem. It's a difficult proposition because always the opposition will want much more than what it deserves."

Increasingly, Mugabe confronts a dilemma. He insists that Zimbabwe is a sovereign country and will brook no outside interference. Yet the country, once a bread basket of the region, is now dependent on international aid to feed its people as it suffers inflation officially running at 11 million percent.

Aid agencies welcomed the power-sharing deal as a hopeful sign they will be able to step up food deliveries to millions of people facing hunger.

"The food situation in Zimbabwe has reached crisis point," said Matthew Cochrane of the international Red Cross. "There are already more than 2 million people who don't have food, and that number is going to rise to 5 million, which is about half the country's population, by the end of the year."

Mugabe's government restricted the work of aid agencies in June, accusing them of siding with the opposition before a presidential runoff. The ban was lifted last month, but aid agencies say it takes time to gear up.

Western nations, whose aid and investment could mean the difference between the success or failure of the unity experiment, reacted cautiously. Millions of dollars in aid are expected if Mugabe proves genuine about sharing power and working to end Zimbabwe's economic and political crisis.

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