Arrest casts shadow over Zim Cabinet swearing-in

Staff Reporter

A top MDC official was arrested on Friday, just an hour before a Zimbabwe unity government was sworn in.

President Robert Mugabe swore in hard-line supporters to lead Zimbabwe’s security forces in a unity government on Friday, just an hour after a top aide to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai was arrested.

Roy Bennett, a white farmer who became treasurer of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was arrested at a Harare airport just an hour before the Cabinet took their oaths, the party said.

He returned just last month from three years of self-imposed exile in South Africa, where he had fled to escape charges of plotting to kill Mugabe, and was set to become deputy agriculture minister in the new government.

His arrest was the most dramatic in a series of twists to Friday’s ceremony that finalised a unity government nearly a year after disputed elections.

The MDC accused Mugabe of trying to bring 22 ministers into Cabinet early on Friday, although their agreement allowed his party only 15 seats.

In the end, Mugabe swore in two extra ministers while the MDC took one more seat than expected.

Tsvangirai’s party, in a statement, blamed the development on “back-stage chaos and confusion” within Mugabe’s Zanu-PF.

Mugabe gave some of his party’s staunchest hardliners the key posts of defence, home affairs and national security.

The defence portfolio went to Emmerson Mnangagwa, seen as the president’s right hand, who earned notoriety as the head of state security in the 1980s, when a North Korean-trained army brigade allegedly massacred up to 20 000 suspected dissidents from the minority Ndebele people.

Sydney Sekeramayi, who was defence minister in the last Cabinet, took up the state security post.

Kembo Mohadi retained his position at home affairs, a portfolio he will share with a co-minister from Tsvangirai’s party.

At home affairs, Mohadi has presided over the police during a period that saw widespread allegations against the force of rights abuses and intimidation of the MDC.

Top among those are allegations that security forces have detained and tortured MDC supporters and other activists at secret camps.

About 30 activists remain in custody, and Bennett’s arrest raised new doubts about their fate.

Unlikely partnership
Bennett was among the most striking names on Tsvangirai’s Cabinet list, which made for an unlikely partnership with some of Mugabe’s oldest and toughest allies.

Bennett’s Charleswood farm was expropriated under Mugabe’s land reforms in 2003, and the following year he was jailed for eight months for assault after he punched the justice minister during a heated debate in Parliament on the land programme.

The sentence was imposed by a Parliament then dominated by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, and following his conviction he lost his parliamentary seat.

In 2006, he fled to neighbouring South Africa to escape arrest after being implicated in an alleged plot to assassinate Mugabe. Such allegations have been levied but never substantiated against some of the MDC leadership.

Under the unity pact, Tsvangirai’s aides are paired with people they have long accused of masterminding political attacks against themselves and their supporters.

Analysts have questioned how such bitter adversaries would be able to work together to curb a humanitarian crisis that almost defies comprehension.

Nearly seven million people need food aid. Up to three million have fled the country. Unemployment is at 94% and only 20% of children are going to school.

Public hospitals are closed, even though 1,3-million people have HIV. A cholera epidemic is ravaging the country, hitting about 70 000 people and killing about 3 400 since August.—AFP

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