Tsvangirai's absence may leave void in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s prime minister, injured in a car crash that killed his wife, has left for medical treatment in Botswana, leaving no word when he will return to his troubled homeland to try to make a power-sharing
deal with his longtime rival work.

The effect Prime Minister’s Morgan Tsvangirai’s absence will have on Zimbabwe’s fraught political system when much of the population is suffering from hunger and disease is a matter of speculation.

He spent months in Botswana last year, fearing for his life at the height of a stand-off with President Robert Mugabe—the man with whom he formed a
joint government last month.

Tsvangirai arrived in Botswana on Saturday, a day after the crash, according to a spokesperson for Botswana’s foreign ministry. State media in Zimbabwe had said only that Tsvangirai had left for treatment, and his party had refused publicly to specify where he had gone.

Botswana President Seretse Ian Khama has been one of the few African leaders to openly criticise Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 and is accused of destroying its economy and trampling on democratic and human rights.

Tsvangirai’s coalition government with Mugabe has been rocky from the start. Mugabe has treated Tsvangirai as a junior partner, declaring at February 28 celebrations for his 85th birthday: “I am still in control and hold executive authority, so nothing much has changed.”

And Mugabe may use Tsvangirai’s absence to further tighten his grip.

Tsvangirai, though, is likely to benefit from sympathy at home and abroad.

Tsvangirai has two deputy prime ministers who, like him, are opposition leaders—Thokozani Khupe and Arthur Mutambara. In addition, Tsvangirai’s number two in his Movement for Democratic Change party, Tendai Biti, holds the key government post of finance minister. Biti, a sharp-tongued lawyer, has meetings in the coming week with an International Monetary Fund team to review Zimbabwe’s financial prospects and discuss addressing its economic and humanitarian crises.

Key potential foreign donors such as the United States and Britain have been waiting to see how much power Tsvangirai will wield in the unity government before stepping in with major development help. Now, their wait is likely to be longer.

Tsvangirai was criticised for spending long periods out of the country last year, even when it became clear it was out of fear for his safety. This time, his decision to seek medical care in a country where he feels comfortable will be seen in the context of Zimbabwe’s catastrophic hospital system.

Zimbabweans also may be willing to give him time to recover from the loss of his wife of 31 years. While Susan Tsvangirai did not play a prominent political role, she was by many accounts an important confidante and source of support for her husband.

The question, though, is how long Zimbabweans can be patient as they cope with the world’s highest official inflation rate, a hunger crisis that has left most of its people dependent on foreign handouts and a cholera epidemic blamed on the collapse of a once-enviable health and sanitation system.

The government-run Sunday Mail quoted Nelson Chamisa, a spokesperson for the prime minister’s Movement for Democratic Change party, as saying Tsvangirai left after consultations with his family, party and government “for further medical examination and attention just to make sure that we have exercised due diligence. We are not leaving any medical stone unturned”.

Chamisa would not say when Tsvangirai would return, telling the Mail that “is going to be a function of the progress that is going to be made in the examination”.

Zimbabwe’s long history of political violence blamed on Mugabe’s forces—including several assassination attempts on Tsvangirai—is fueling speculation Friday’s car crash was not an accident.

A statement posted on the prime minister’s website on Saturday said that “although it is to soon to draw conclusions, available facts suggest it was an accident”. But Tsvangirai’s party has called for an
investigation, and said the crash could have been avoided had Tsvangirai had the kind of motorcade that travels with Mugabe. Since becoming prime minister, Tsvangirai usually travels in a convoy of four or five cars with his own and government guards, while Mugabe travels with dozens of cars and motorcycles.

The coalition was formed after a dispute over presidential elections nearly a year ago and months of state-sponsored violence against MDC members and independent political activists.

Tsvangirai was headed to a weekend rally in his home region when his four-wheel-drive vehicle collided with a truck carrying US aid on the outskirts of the capital on a notoriously dangerous road. State
television said the truck swerved on an uneven stretch of the road, which, like many in Zimbabwe, is poorly maintained. Tsvangirai’s spokesperson the car carrying the prime minister, his wife, a driver
and a bodyguard sideswiped the truck and rolled at least three times.

Tsvangirai, who turns 57 on Tuesday, formed the MDC a decade ago. As it emerged as a serious political challenger, Tsvangirai repeatedly faced
the wrath of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party. He has been beaten and was once nearly thrown from a 10th floor window by suspected government thugs. - Sapa-AP