/ 15 November 2008

Annan to lead team to Harare

The former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, is to lead a high-profile team on a humanitarian mission to Zimbabwe, where the opposition Movement for Democratic Change refused yesterday to join a power-sharing government with President Robert Mugabe.

Along with the former US president Jimmy Carter and Graça Machel, the rights activist and wife of Nelson Mandela, Annan will assess how best to halt the country’s growing social and economic crisis, he said on Friday. They will represent the Elders, a group of 12 statesmen with experience of resolving conflicts that was established by Mandela last year.

”Relieving the suffering of millions of people must be the priority of Zimbabwe’s leaders,” said Annan, whose two-day visit will start next Saturday. ”But global attention is al so slipping as Zimbabwe’s humanitarian crisis worsens.”

The UN estimates that five million people, nearly half the population, will need food aid by January. Inflation is running at more than 230m percent.

The health system has almost broken down: work at the country’s two biggest hospitals has been halted by a shortage of drugs, food, cleaning materials and staff. Dozens of people have died of cholera in recent weeks in the capital, Harare, where the water and sewage infrastructure is crumbling. The water authority has run out of purifying chemicals, leaving schools, the law courts and businesses without running water.

Even Parliament has not been spared. An opposition official told the ZimOnline news agency that Parliament had been adjourned for a month due to the lack of water and funds to pay MPs’ expenses and accommodation.

Annan said his delegation would not be involved in political negotiations between Mugabe and the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, but urged them to come to a swift agreement.

”Delays in forming a government are prolonging the suffering of the people,” he said.

It is unlikely that Mugabe will welcome the Elders’ visit, especially given that he rejected a proposal by the MDC for Annan to mediate in the post-election political dispute earlier this year. He also accuses the international community of exaggerating the humanitarian crisis.

MDC leaders met on Friday to decide whether to join the government led by Mugabe, who was defeated in the first round of elections but won the run-off after Tsvangirai pulled out because of state-sponsored violence and intimidation. A deal to share Cabinet posts between the parties was agreed two months ago, but Tsvangirai has since accused Mugabe of sabotaging the agreement by allocating the key posts, particularly those relating to security, to his Zanu-PF party.

After the meeting the MDC criticised leaders of the Southern African Development Community, which called last week for the two men to share the home affairs ministry — responsible for the police force — and immediately form a unity government. Thokozani Khupe, deputy leader of the MDC, said that before joining a power-sharing government the party wanted a constitutional amendment passed to implement terms of the power-sharing deal, including creating and defining the new prime minister post, which is to be filled by Tsvangirai.

”Neither Robert Mugabe nor Zanu-PF has the legitimacy of forming any government or running this country in the absence of the consummation of the global power-sharing agreement,” Khupe said, adding that the MDC remained committed to dialogue.

The impasse means the dire socio-economic conditions are bound to worsen before Annan’s visit. The cholera outbreak has alarmed aid workers.

Médecins sans Frontières said that a million people in Harare could be at risk, though the government said reports that more than 100 people have died in recent weeks were an exaggeration.

But the catastrophic state of the country’s once-proud hospitals cannot be overstated, medical professionals say. Kate Adams, a British doctor who returned from a visit to Zimbabwe last week, said there was such a shortage of life-saving drugs in state-run hospitals that patients’ relatives were being told to try to find them at private pharmacies in town. – guardian.co.uk