By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
JOHANNESBURG, Sept. 15 -- President Robert Mugabe ceded a large share of control over Zimbabwe's government Monday, in a power-sharing agreement that loosened his absolute hold over a nation he helped lead to independence nearly three decades ago.
The deal, signed in Zimbabwe's capital in a ceremony that featured a glum Mugabe shaking the hands of his rivals, provided an opening that could bring a much-needed turnaround to a nation that has been in economic free fall for years and in political crisis since elections this spring. But its success depends on the cooperation of longtime enemies who must now work together in a unity government tasked with lifting Zimbabwe out of ruin.
The pact envisions an even distribution of power between Mugabe's party and opposition groups, but sources close to the negotiations have said Mugabe will retain control over the army, whose members used force in attempts to intimidate opposition supporters earlier this year. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai will become prime minister and oversee a council of ministers that will supervise a 31-member cabinet headed by Mugabe. The leader of a splinter opposition group will be deputy prime minister.
Tsvangirai, who was greeted by cheering supporters Monday, cited the nation's "needless suffering" but called on Zimbabweans to look ahead. "We had two options: to put aside our differences or to continue to let the impasse plunge our country into the abyss of a failed state," said Tsvangirai, 56. "I have signed this agreement because I believe it represents the best opportunity for us to build a peaceful, prosperous, democratic Zimbabwe."
Western powers have pledged to lift economic sanctions and provide aid only if true power is given to Tsvangirai. Diplomats from the United States, Britain and the European Union voiced caution Monday, saying they would need to examine the deal before making any pledges.
Jendayi E. Frazer, assistant U.S. secretary of state for African affairs, said in an interview that the United States wants to see "real change" in Zimbabwe. "We will have to reserve our final judgment until we are able to study the agreement and learn more about the new government," Frazer said. "That said, we are hopeful, and we certainly look forward to working with Morgan Tsvangirai as the new prime minister to try to see recovery for the economy."
The deal assigns "executive authority" to the president, the prime minister and the cabinet, whose members have not yet been named. Fifteen of those slots will go to ZANU-PF, Mugabe's ruling party.
"We are committed to the deal," said Mugabe, 84. "We will do our best."
Zimbabwe, once an agricultural powerhouse and prime tourist destination, has in recent years descended into an economic morass that experts attribute to Mugabe's disastrous policies, including the mass seizure and redistribution of white-owned commercial farms. The official inflation rate is now higher than 11 million percent, and many Zimbabweans are unemployed and barely able to feed themselves.
The agreement came after nearly two months of tense negotiations led by South African President Thabo Mbeki, and many of its details were still being worked out. The talks started after March elections that gave a first-round win to Tsvangirai and a parliamentary majority to his party, the Movement for Democratic Change.
But Tsvangirai withdrew from a June runoff, citing government-sponsored attacks on his supporters. Mugabe won the election as the only candidate on the ballot, in a poll that was internationally condemned.
During the negotiations, the prospect of foreign investment gave Tsvangirai crucial bargaining power that made Mugabe release some of his authority, political analysts said. If that was the case, however, Mugabe made no indication of it during a speech Monday, in which he repeated his position that Western governments had caused Zimbabwe's problems.
"The problem that we have now is a problem that has been created by a former colonial power wanting to continue to interfere in our domestic affairs," Mugabe said after the signing ceremony. "They imposed sanctions. We had not attacked Britain; we had not done anything to Britain. We had not attacked America. Why, why, why the hand of the Americans here?"
Pressure from the African Union also forced Mugabe's hand, analysts said.
"The manner in which the election was conducted could not pass the test of any democratic government," said Trevor Ncube, the publisher of two independent Zimbabwean newspapers, the Independent and the Standard. "He's simply succumbed to that logic."
Opposition members hailed the deal. Many said that although Mugabe's partial release of power was an imperfect bargain, it was a shift they had rarely believed would occur.
"We have scars, broken bones and bashed heads from this man . . . but for today we can celebrate," said Thomas Mhandara, 30, an unemployed shopkeeper and MDC activist. "That we dragged him to the negotiating table and took away half of his powers in the process is something we are happy about. You are talking about a dictator here. Dictators don't just leave power."
It was still unclear how ministries will be distributed -- particularly the security forces, who are seen as loyal to Mugabe and whose acceptance of the deal could determine its success. Sources close to the negotiations have said Mugabe's party would retain control of the army, and the MDC would oversee the police.
Another question was whether government agents who have used violence against Mugabe's opponents would be prosecuted. Outside the signing ceremony, MDC supporters sang victory anthems, dedicating some to the 131 opposition backers reportedly killed after the election. Human Rights Watch released a statement calling for Zimbabwe to "hold to account those responsible for past abuses."
"We have hundreds of people who have been killed by ZANU-PF, yet the MDC is not mentioning anything about it," said Nelia Mafukidze, 30, who sells fruit in one of Harare's poorest suburbs. "Are those bad things going to go just like that?"
Yet the biggest concern for many Zimbabweans on Monday was whether the parties in the new government would put aside their animosities and address the nation's economic problems.
"We don't care what the deal says," said Marry Muzofa, 56, who was waiting in a long line to buy bread in downtown Harare and said she is a ZANU-PF supporter. "We just want to start getting food and send our children to school. If signing it can provide that, they must just go ahead."
Political analysts and economists warned that recovery would take time even if foreign aid and investment start flowing. Crops must be planted, factories must be opened and, to curb inflation, Zimbabwe's central Reserve Bank must stop printing money, they said.
"What the country requires at the moment are major structural changes on the economic front," said Eldred Masunungure, a University of Zimbabwe political science professor. "There is likely to be a crisis of expectations."
A Zimbabwean reporter in Harare contributed to this report.