/ 27 October 2008

African leaders meet to rescue Zim accord

Leaders of a Southern African bloc met on Monday in Zimbabwe to press President Robert Mugabe and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai to break an impasse on forming a unity government.

Underscoring the political tensions, police fired tear gas and arrested about half of a group of 100 activists who tried to march by the hotel where the leaders were meeting, organisers said.

The activists were demanding that the rivals settle their differences on forming a Cabinet under a power-sharing deal signed six weeks ago, which had been hailed as an end to Zimbabwe’s political turmoil and economic collapse.

”Conclude the talks. We are dying of hunger,” the activists from the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition said in a statement.

Mugabe’s lead negotiator, Patrick Chinamasa, told state media that he was ”cautiously optimistic” of reaching a deal, saying the summit ”will end the saga over the allocation of ministries”.

The security organ of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) organised the summit in Harare after Tsvangirai boycotted talks one week ago in Swaziland to protest delays in receiving his travel papers from Mugabe’s government.

Just six weeks ago, regional leaders had come to Harare to celebrate the signing of the power-sharing deal, which calls for 84-year-old Mugabe to remain as president while Tsvangirai becomes prime minister.

But Mugabe and Tsvangirai have failed to agree on which party should control the most important ministries, particularly home affairs, which oversees the police force.

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, Mozambican President Armando Emilio Guebuza, Swaziland Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini and Angolan Foreign Minister Assuncao dos Anjos hope to pressure the two sides into an agreement on Monday to salvage the deal.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who brokered the original agreement, said he was ”very optimistic” going into the talks.

”Progress on the talks is very good,” Mbeki told reporters as he arrived in Harare.

Arthur Mutambara, leader of a breakaway faction of the MDC, said he expected the regional bloc to find a way to resolve the differences over the cabinet posts.

”The options are limited. We must make sure the September 15 agreement works,” he told reporters.

”There is no way Mugabe will go it alone, and Mutambara and Tsvangirai can’t walk away,” he said.

Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in a first-round presidential vote in March, when the MDC also forced the long-ruling Zanu-PF into the minority in Parliament for the first time.

But he failed to win enough votes for an outright victory and then pulled out of the run-off in June, accusing the regime of coordinating a brutal campaign of violence that left more than 100 of his supporters dead.

The protracted political feuding has dimmed the hopes of ordinary Zimbabweans, who had believed the unity government would lift the country’s economic fortunes.

Zimbabwe’s agriculture-based economy has been in freefall for nearly a decade, since Mugabe’s government began seizing white-owned farms in a chaotic land-reform scheme that gave land to poor black Zimbabweans who often lacked the training for large-scale commercial farming.

Once seen as an African success story, Zimbabwe is now one of its failures, with more than 80% of its population plunged into poverty and battling the world’s highest inflation rate, estimated at 231-million percent. — AFP