Zimbabwe’s fragile coalition faced a new test on Friday as Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said it would ”disengage” from President Robert Mugabe to protest Wednesday’s jailing of a senior party figure and the slow pace of reform.
But Tsvangirai stopped short of announcing a full withdrawal from the unity government.
”It is our right to disengage from a dishonest and unreliable partner. In this regard, while being in government we shall forthwith disengage from Zanu-PF and in particular from Cabinet and the council of ministers until such time as confidence and respect are restored among us,” Tsvangirai told reporters.
A magistrate on Wednesday ordered Roy Bennett, MDC treasurer and a close Tsvangirai ally, back to jail over long-standing charges that he acquired weapons for the violent overthrow of Mugabe.
But Zimbabwe’s High Court on Friday ordered Bennett’s release on bail.
”In my view the applicant stands to lose more by absconding trial. He has foiled his previous record, therefore he is entitled to an order that he seeks,” Justice Charles Hungwe told the court.
The state immediately appealed the ruling but Hungwe dismissed the bid to detain Bennett in custody for the start of his terrorism trial on Monday.
Following Bennett’s jailing on Wednesday, tensions quickly escalated. Mugabe refused to meet Tsvangirai, who had sought an emergency meeting to resolve the matter, and the prime minister reacted by refusing to hold a scheduled Cabinet meeting.
On Friday Tsvangirai told reporters the detention of Bennett showed that Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party regarded the MDC as a junior partner and that the power-sharing administration would collapse if the president continued his unilateral rule.
”The … detention of our party treasurer Roy Bennett has brought home the fiction of the credibility and integrity of the transitional government. It has brought home the self-evident fact that Zanu-PF see us as a junior, fickle and unserious movement,” Tsvangirai said.
”For that reason, this party for now cannot renege on the people’s mandate. However, it is our right to disengage from a dishonest and unreliable partner. In this regard, while being government, we shall forthwith disengage from Zanu-PF and in particular from Cabinet and the council of ministers until such time as confidence and respect is restored among us.
”This will include the full resolution of all outstanding issues and the substantial implementation of the GPA. We are aware of the constitutional implications of our decision, in light of the foundational element of the transitional government that executive power is shared between the president, the prime minister and Cabinet.”
Tsvangirai said if the new constitutional crisis escalated further, it would only be resolved by the holding of fresh elections under supervision of the United Nations and regional body the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
A group of radical MDC officials has been pressing Tsvangirai to pull out of the coalition and is due to use Bennett’s jailing to drive its position home.
Ahead of the meeting on Friday, the MDC said in a statement: ”This latest action is deliberately provocative, unnecessary and motivated by hatred of a personality. The MDC takes this matter as a serious attack on the integrity and honesty of the party; it is not acceptable and will not be taken lightly.”
Bennett was Tsvangirai’s controversial choice for agriculture minister, but was arrested just hours before the unity government was sworn in last February.
One of the country’s top coffee growers before his farm in the east of the country fell to Mugabe’s land seizures, Bennett is hugely popular among the MDC grassroots, who adore his flawless command of the local Shona language and his defiance. However, he is deeply reviled within Zanu-PF circles, where his role as a policeman of the white settler regime is frequently brought up to discredit him.
Analysts told Reuters on Friday the MDC’s decision illustrated that the settlement, brokered by former South African president Thabo Mbeki last year, was not stable.
”I think it continues to underline the fact that this is not a stable settlement. It’s a settlement which Tsvangirai went into because SADC pushed him into it,” said Steven Friedman, director at the Centre for the Study of Democracy in Johannesburg.
”Clearly there is a widespread feeling that this is not a viable agreement, but it’s essentially being held together because SADC is insisting on it.
”The way forward is that there has to be continued diplomatic pressure and international pressure on the Zimbabwean power holders to consider genuine democracy, and the difficulty at the moment is that the pressure is coming from Western powers who do not have an honourable history in southern Africa. [It] must start with SADC and the [African Union].”
Here is a timeline of events since the two main players signed a power-sharing deal in September 2008.
September 15 2008: Mugabe and Tsvangirai sign a power-sharing agreement to try to end the crisis but implementation stalls over who gets top ministerial posts.
January 27 2009: Regional leaders say they reached breakthrough in negotiations on implementing the deal, but the opposition says it is disappointed with results of the meeting.
January 30: Opposition agrees at meeting in Harare to join the unity government.
February 5: Parliament passes a constitutional Bill paving the way for a coalition government.
February 11: Tsvangirai is sworn in as prime minister.
March 4: Tsvangirai calls for an end to international sanctions in his maiden speech to Parliament, as part of his bid to start rebuilding the shattered economy.
March 6: Tsvangirai is injured in a car accident that killed his wife. He is flown to Botswana for treatment.
May 1: Tsvangirai announces at a May Day rally that the unity government is broke and cannot meet union demands for higher wages.
June 24: Tsvangirai winds up a three-week tour to the United States and Europe which yielded scant funds and put him under pressure to persuade Mugabe to agree to reform to secure foreign aid.
June 25: Mugabe attacks Western countries for refusing to lift sanctions because he was still in power, but says his country will get aid from those who will not impose conditions.
July 14: Zimbabwe resumes a convention to draw up a new Constitution after it was halted the day before, following clashes between rival political parties that exposed tensions within the new unity government.
September 4: The International Monetary Fund says it has transferred about $400-million in IMF special drawing rights to Zimbabwe as part of G20 agreement to help member states.
September 12: Mugabe welcomes the first top-level European Union delegation to visit Zimbabwe in seven years with ”open arms” and say talks on implementing a power-sharing deal went well.
October 1: Zimbabwe’s economy is projected to grow by 3,7% this year, according to the IMF, the first expansion since 1997.
October 14: A court detains Roy Bennett, a senior MDC official, and rules that he should stand trial on terrorism charges.
October 15: Britain says it is providing $100-million in aid to Zimbabwe in 2009, its largest ever donation to the country, to help the unity government.
October 16: Tsvangirai announces the MDC will disengage from ”dishonest and unreliable” Zanu-PF. — Reuters