Conflicting Statements Show Uneasy Start for Zimbabwe's Unity Government

10 March 2009

The funeral for Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's wife, Susan, who died in a car accident, is to be held Wednesday, one month to the day after the country inaugurated its power-sharing government.

Morgan Tsvangirai (l) takes the oath of prime minister, in front of President Robert Mugabe (r) at the State House in Harare, 11 Feb. 2009
Morgan Tsvangirai (l) takes the oath of prime minister, in front of President Robert Mugabe (r) at the State House in Harare, 11 Feb. 2009
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai have pledged to work together in the new unity government in order to ease Zimbabwe's crisis. But it is clear from their recent public statements the two leaders still disagree on some major issues.

Mr. Tsvangirai, in his first address to parliament last week, called for Western governments to lift sanctions they imposed because of authoritarianism and human-rights violations by the Mugabe government.

"I therefore want to urge the international community to recognize our efforts and note the progress that we made in this regard, and to match our progress by moving towards the removal of any restrictive measures," Mr. Tsvangirai said.  

This represented a departure for the new prime minister who is backed by many Western governments.

Zimbabwe's Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa (2008 file photo)
Zimbabwe's Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa (2008 file photo)
One of Mr. Mugabe's strongest supporters, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, told delegates to the U.N. Human Rights Council that certain powerful governments unfairly condemn Zimbabwe's human-rights record, while overlooking the faults of their friends and themselves.

"We are not saying be silent if you see us not promoting and respecting and protecting human rights," Chinamasa said. "We are only saying we need to hear you loud and clear on all (countries), without favor in respect of human-rights violations."

But Mr. Tsvangirai told parliament that abuses in his country must stop and individual freedoms must be respected.

"Our citizens have the right to express their views, to ask their views," Mr. Tsvangirai said. "Therefore the days of police wantonly and violently breaking up peaceful demonstrations and gatherings and needlessly imprisoning innocent Zimbabweans must come to an end."  

And he delivered a warning to officials in charge of security.

"Such activities could bring the threat of prosecution not only on those arresting or interfering with such activities, but also on those that order such interference and arrest," Mr. Tsvangirai said.  

Mr. Tsvangirai also criticized policies of the Mugabe government that have led to the seizure of 4,000 commercial farms owned by whites. The farm seizures are blamed for food shortages and the dependence of one-half of the population on humanitarian food aid.

"We must halt the wanton disruption of the production on farm activities that are continuing as I speak," Mr. Tsvangirai said. "Already our food production for the coming season is going to be less than last year's abysmal season. Those that believe that they can move onto a viable farmland and steal the crops that are about to be harvested are wrong."  

Nevertheless, the farm occupations continue, and Mr. Mugabe, speaking at a rally, indicated they would not stop.

"The farmers who own these farms, which now have been designated and have been offered to new land owners in accordance with our land acquisition law, must respect that law," Mr. Mugabe said. "And they must vacate those farms. They must vacate those farms."

The chairman of the South Africa-based Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, MacDonald Lewanika, says contradictory statements are to be expected from a government of this kind.

"It was clear from the onset that this would be a very rocky process," Lewanika said. "It would be fraught with a lot of confusing situation and signals being sent from government because of the nature of the constituents of that particular government. A government that is supposed to be run on the basis of consensus will always run into challenges around suppositions coming out which are not necessarily consensus positions."

Nevertheless, the Zimbabwean leaders do agree on many issues, especially the need to control a cholera epidemic that has killed 4,000 people and infected nearly 90,000.

They agree that urgent measures are also needed to revive education, and water and sanitation services that have badly deteriorated in recent years.

And they agree that they must revive the Zimbabwe economy, which is staggering under declining productivity, hyper-inflation, 80 percent unemployment and food shortages.

Mr. Tsvangirai's group blames the head of the central bank Gideon Gono for much of the economic collapse. It wants him replaced along with other senior officials who were appointed without their say. But Mr. Mugabe has said that the recent re-appointment of these close allies will not be reversed.