Morgan Tsvangirai campaign poster - Zimbabwe's April 2008 election
Morgan Tsvangirai campaign poster - Zimbabwe's April 2008 election

Zimbabweans face economic turmoil, putting the western market crisis into sharp relief, while a new unity government deal seems a ploy to put aid money into ZANU-PF coffers, Simon Roughneen writes for ISN Security Watch.

Perhaps he was thinking of Joshua Nkomo – Robert Mugabe’s former liberation-ally later political rival who joined ZANU-PF in a coalition government in the 1980s – only to see some 20,000 of his supporters killed, as Mugabe ensured his then-rival posed no real challenge here to his hegemony.

Maybe he has a pension plan in a western bank, and was sweating over the Lehman Brothers collapse, which was simultaneously reverberating around the world’s stock markets as he sat impassively after making an impassioned plea to the world’s donors:

‘We need to unlock our doors to aid […] we need medicine, food and doctors back in our country.’

Either way, Zimbabwe’s new Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai cut a tired and disconsolate figure as he sat, hand over face, listening to Mugabe’s rambling and sentimental incantations at Harare’s Rainbow Towers Hotel – the setting for Monday’s announcement of a new national unity government for Zimbabwe.

If one of the world’s biggest investment banks and an august peer of the Wall Street realm such as Lehmann can collapse only months after Bear Stearns, with Merril Lynch and insurance agency AIG, in almost as bad a shape, Tsvingirai must feel like as if he is throwing straws into the wind with his clarion call to western economies for help.

A curious parallel, however, ran throughout Monday’s news coverage between the malpractices at some western financial institutions and the mismanagement of Zimbabwe’s economy by Mugabe’s inner circle.

As these western financial institutions lent virtual money to people without means to manage repayments, adding air to the now-burst credit bubble, Zimbabwe’s rampant inflation has reached such a nadir that that the government resorted to dropping 13 zeros from its currency last month to allow ATM machines and calculators to handle basic transactions.

Now taxpayers must foot the bill as the US government intervenes to prop up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, while the European Central Bank pumps billions to ensure banks stay liquid. Paying tax, of course, is something different in Zimbabwe – the suffering pay in blood, in the early death of loved ones and in the grinding poverty wrought by economic mismanagement.

Now the tax dollars and euros and pounds that donor governments collect from their citizens, some of which goes to overseas aid, may now be used to bail out failing banks rather than Zimbabwe’s poor.

In any case, donors were hedging their bets on lifting sanctions against Mugabe and his senior ZANU-PF comrades.

“We hope that the new government will now reverse the tragic policies and decline of recent years,” British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement Monday. “The new government needs to start to rebuild the country. If it does so, Britain and the rest of the international community will be quick to support them.”

Obstructing humanitarian aid, and preventing relief reaching non-ZANU-PF supporting regions, has been a Mugabe hallmark. Fears abound that this new deal is merely a ploy to re-oil the aid spigot, in the hope that donors will twist the tap and buttress Mugabe with cash to abet what he hopes may be belated respectability afforded by compromise with his rival, Tsvangirai.

However, the terms of the power-sharing deal remain unclear. Mugabe as president will head a cabinet, while Tsvangirai chairs the Council of Ministers. Combined with Arthur Mutumbara’s breakaway MDC faction, Tsvangirai will have a 16-15 ministerial majority. But power in Zimbabwe rests with the army, and Mugabe will answer for, or mostly likely to, the top army/ZANU-PF generals – whose zest to keep the old man in power no doubt stems from fears of retribution for their violent excesses during ZANU-PF rule.

Mugabe will chair a national security council, comprising the heads of the army, police and secret services, while Tsvangirai will only be a member. Mugabe will retain the power to proclaim martial law. He can allocate ministerial portfolios, make key appointments and dissolve parliament “in consultation” with the prime minister

Britain and the US were the predictable targets of Mugabe’s ire on Monday, given the omnipresent specter of neo-colonialism that apparently looms over Zimbabwe. According to the president, this is the cause of all the country’s woes, be that 11 million percent inflation, 3-4 million of his people fleeing the country in recent years, and a plummeting life expectancy that now ranks in the mid-thirties.

“Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans, Africa for Africans,” he thundered, a riposte to Tsvangirai’s exhortations to the “international community,” which was so ineffective in preventing Zimbabwe’s slide into chaos since the late 1990s.

Mugabe’s nativist appeal would stack up much better if he had not already traded much of Zimbabwe’s mineral wealth for Chinese military assistance and diplomatic protection. Beijing teamed up with Moscow to veto sanctions against ZANU-PF at the UN Security Council in July this year; this despite the horrors perpetrated by army top brass in the name of Mugabe, and ample repayment for China’s access to Zimbabwe’s lucrative platinum reserves.

Mugabe, for his part, could not bring himself to address Tsvangirai by his new title of prime minister, and referred to the MDC as “the opposition.” The new PM’s challenge to the old order – even if Mugabe’s defiant strut across the podium belied his 84 years – was implicit rather than direct, perhaps understandably cowed by the fierceness of the assault perpetrated on his MDC since the presidential elections held in March, which the now-PM won.

He later pulled-out of the scheduled June run-off, as a means to avert more bloodshed, amid state security apparatchiks’ targeting of MDC activists – with over 200 apparently killed, food blockades of districts that supported Tsvangirai, and a sickening campaign of violence that included torture, rape and grisly executions.

Joshua Nkomo’s supporters endured a similar auto-da-fe during the power-struggle with Mugabe in the 1980s, and Nkomo ultimately compromised with Mugabe once the suffering became unbearable. Mugabe thus bolstered his power, and this deal could, sadly, be a repeat.

As Jennifer Cooke, co-director of the Africa Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, told ISN Security Watch by email:

“The fact is that Mugabe lost the initial election, and then bullied his way to the run-off and the power-sharing negotiations with intimidation, torture, arbitrary arrests and killings. There’s little reason now to suspect he’d relinquish real power or change fundamental tactics. Mugabe likely calculates that this arrangement will turn on the spigot of international assistance, giving him time and resources to line up a successor from his inner circle, maintain a hold on the security forces, and clear the way for a safe, protected retirement.”

Whether the money barons at western banks and lending entities get that far remains to be seen. The incompetent and greedy bosses at some of these continue to receive their salaries, and heads do not seem set to roll. Something similar prevails in Zimbabwe.

But some of the ground for mocking Mugabe has now shifted. Economic and financial mismanagement, according to Monday’s news bulletins flicking back and forth between Wall Street and Harare, appeared contagious, and the difference between the two places was elided somewhat by the surreal events taking place at both.

Mugabe has no formal economics or finance qualifications, unlike his counterparts on Wall Street. This did not stop him from attempting his own disastrous political pyramid scheme in Zimbabwe, destroying the economy to reward his henchmen, whose muscle he needed to remain in power. Zimbabweans fled their country, watching their savings and wages destroyed by rampant inflation, just as now worried people in the West see their own savings and investments compromised by leverage, housing bubbles and the like.

But the clear difference remains, as Mugabe himself put it better than anyone. “I have a degree in violence.” He has shown time and again, that he is not afraid to use it, either. During the past six months alone, it has transformed an election defeat into a retained presidency.

Moreover, it remains to be seen whether Tsvangirai has the guile to outwit Mugabe now that they share power, and whether Tsvangirai’s western allies can put their money where their mouths are, as economic recession looms after the credit crunch.

“Credit” comes from the Latin “credo” – “to have faith.” Credit means placing a bet, making a leap of faith, as we cannot predict the future. The breach of this implicit trust between borrowers and lenders over future outcomes partly caused the collapse of Lehman and feeds into the continuing financial fallout.

Whether Tsvangirai can, or should, trust Mugabe’s long-discredited bona-fides is unclear. The president has long since used up whatever political credit he had, but he remains, and Zimbabweans will take some persuading that this deal can end their country’s long-running crisis.

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