Zimbabwe's opposition leader returns home

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Associated Press

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Zimbabwe's main opposition leader returned home Saturday to face a dilemma: participate as a junior partner in a lopsided government of national unity or let President Robert Mugabe regain total control.

Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change insisted he would not be bulldozed into agreement at a meeting Monday with bitter rival Mugabe and the presidents of South Africa, Mozambique and regional mediator Thabo Mbeki.

There is acute concern that the longstanding political deadlock is exacerbating the country's economic meltdown. In a rare visit, the head of the U.N. children's agency said the 2,200 deaths from cholera were just a small example of the humanitarian crisis.

"The cholera outbreak is the tip of the iceberg," said UNICEF head Ann Veneman. "Over half the population is receiving food aid, health centers have closed and when the school term starts there is no guarantee that there will be enough teachers."

Tsvangirai flew into Harare after two months abroad, much of it in neighboring Botswana. He was due to hold talks with his party on whether it should pull out of the power-sharing agreement that was reached in September but never implemented.

Despite the accord, Mugabe's party has grabbed nearly all the key ministries, appointed provincial leaders and reappointed the Central Bank governor blamed for the country's dizzying inflation, officially put at 231 million percent.

"I will not be bulldozed into joining this government, which does not reflect the interests of the people," Tsvangirai said in brief remarks at the airport. "I'm not going to betray them."

But he stressed that he was still committed to the power-sharing agreement.

"I hope that we find a political solution to save this country from total collapse."

Mugabe has warned that he will press ahead unilaterally if Tsvangirai will not come on board.

Tsvangirai won the first round of presidential elections last March but pulled out of the runoff vote because of violence against his supporters. Under the power-sharing accord, he would be prime minister, with Mugabe as president.

The current allocation of Cabinet seats gives Mugabe's party control of nearly all the major ministries. The Movement for Democratic Change is holding out for the Home Affairs Ministry, saying this is the only way to rein in the police, which are accused of some of the worst violence and a recent wave of abductions of opposition supporters.

Tsvangirai has rejected proposals by southern African mediators to split the Home Affairs Ministry. The presidents of South Africa and Mozambique, and Mbeki, the former South African leader, come to Harare on Monday to try to resolve the impasse.

Veneman met Mugabe on Friday to discuss the growing humanitarian crisis. She told reporters in Johannesburg on Saturday that the 84-year-old ruler recognized the crisis but blamed international donors for turning their backs on Zimbabwe.

Veneman was the first head of a U.N. agency to visit the country in three years. Mugabe recently denied visas to former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan and Graca Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela.

"It is significant that they agreed to let me into the country when many others haven't been allowed," she said.

She also said Mugabe "is acknowledging there is a problem. He recognizes cholera is a problem and there is a problem with the water and sewage system."

She said the United Nations would donate $5 million to help pay the salaries of health workers, who are trying to cope with the cholera epidemic. There are fears that even the official death toll might be a big underestimation because the deaths of many babies and young children might not be recorded.

Veneman voiced fears that there may be a big upsurge in malaria cases as the rainy season continues because authorities have not had any insecticide to spray against mosquitoes.

Many teachers say they can no longer afford to work because the costs of transport are higher than their salaries.

More than 5 million people are likely to be dependent on food aid because of a series of disastrous harvests due to the seizure of white-owned farms.

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