31. Jan 2009

Tsvangirai sets out his terms

Addressing the largest spontaneous demonstration seen in Harare in years, Zimbabwe's prime minister-designate Morgan Tsvangirai yesterday told a surging crowd that his Movement for Democratic Change was at last entering into a unity government with President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF.

The crowd, growing each minute until several streets were blocked, roared their approval. A vehicle carrying helmeted and armed riot police made its way through the demonstration. But instead of taking out their truncheons to beat people up, a dozen of them grinned broadly at the MDC crowd, who shouted cheerful greetings to the men who had made their lives a misery on the streets for the past nine years.

"We are unequivocal, we will go into this government," Tsvangirai told reporters at a packed press conference at the MDC's central Harare headquarters, where the party's national executive council had just endorsed the controversial decision to go into the unity government, which Tsvangirai made at the Southern African Development Community summit in Pretoria this week. "SADC has decided and we are bound by that decision," he told the jubilant crowd. "SADC is our institution, it is not a private club. This is a work in progress … a process," said Tsvangirai, looking relaxed, confident and businesslike. "February 11 is the swearing-in of the prime minister and the deputy prime ministers," he said. "What the national council has endorsed is what SADC has endorsed," he added.

The jubilation of the crowd at their leader going into an uncertain coalition government with the hated Mugabe was an expression of just how desperate the Zimbabwean people are for any possible rescue from their wretched lot. However, Tsvangirai said some outstanding issues, which the SADC summit agreed must be addressed, would have to be resolved before he was sworn in as prime minister in February. These include the MDC's demand for some of the 12 provincial governorships, which Zanu PF has so far monopolised, and for the release of more than 30 opposition supporters and officials; a photojournalist; and Jestina Mukoko, a prominent human rights campaigner, who have been arrested over the past month. "All abductees must be released unconditionally before February 11," Tsvangirai said.

MDC supporters gave a rousing welcome to MDC treasurer Roy Bennett, who had returned that morning from exile in South Africa of nearly three years. In the new spirit of co-operation apparently emerging in Zimbabwe, the MDC had secured a guarantee from Zanu PF that he would not be arrested on his return, despite the state saying it has a case pending against him for leaving the country illegally when he feared he was about to be arrested in an arms-related case. "We are entering this government to save the country from its problems. Let's be committed and move together, let's unite as the people to save this country," Tsvangirai said.

Many MDC hardliners opposed the decision to go into government with Mugabe but Tsvangirai justified it on the grounds that the MDC had "been established to bring about change through the ballot box" and that by winning the March 29 elections last year, it had demonstrated its majority support to SADC and forced Zanu PF to the negotiating table, "which became the new frontline in our quest for a democratic Zimbabwe". Tsvangirai said it was for this reason that he signed the SADC-mediated political agreement with Mugabe in September.

The US government has also opposed the unity deal, fearing that Tsvangirai will be unable to effect any change while Mugabe remains president. On Thursday, Tsvangirai went to see James McGee, the US ambassador to Zimbabwe, to tell him the MDC was moving into a unity government and to ask him for US help in reconstruction. Later McGee said: "The United States government will continue to work with the Zimbabwe government, and any unity government will be treated just like any other government in Zimbabwe. We will take a wait-and-see attitude. We want to see action not words." (The Star, Johannesburg)

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