Zimbabwe Cabinet Talks Stalled, Opposition Says

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

JOHANNESBURG, Oct. 7 -- Talks on the structure of Zimbabwe's unity government are deadlocked more than three weeks after the signing of a historic power-sharing deal, the country's main opposition party said Tuesday.

Since striking the deal Sept. 15, Zimbabwe's rival political factions have been wrangling over ministries that the opposition deems crucial for the government's international legitimacy and that President Robert Mugabe sees as key to retaining his 28-year grip on power, according to sources on both sides of the talks.

The stalemate threatens an accord that gave fresh hope to a once-thriving nation now mired in economic ruin and suffering from widespread hunger. The deal, brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki before his recent ouster, made opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai prime minister and gave 16 of 31 cabinet posts to his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and a splinter opposition faction.

But diplomats and activists questioned from the start whether Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe with increasing severity since the country's liberation in 1980, was truly willing to share power. While ruling party spokesmen this week repeated their assurances that an agreement was on the way, the MDC called on mediators from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community to help break the impasse.

"There isn't progress in any way," Nelson Chamisa, a spokesman for the MDC, said in an interview. Mugabe's party, he said, "is trying to take all the key ministries. We are insisting on making sure that we actually share the ministries equitably."

State-run news media and sources on both sides of the negotiations said the stalemate centered on the Home Affairs and Finance ministries. Three top officials of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) said Mugabe has been under intense pressure from high-level party members not to cede too much power.

"Most people were livid about the deal," said a senior ZANU-PF official who advised Mugabe during the negotiations and who, like others who have been involved, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Home Affairs controls Zimbabwe's police, a force that Mugabe deployed in a bloody crackdown on opposition supporters after Tsvangirai won enough votes in the March presidential election to force a runoff. Citing threats to his supporters, Tsvangirai withdrew from the June runoff. Mugabe won as the sole name on the ballot.

Because Mugabe will retain control over the army as president, the opposition wants the Home Affairs Ministry to "make sure that Zimbabwe becomes a safe destination for investment," Chamisa said. One top ruling party official said the security forces that carried out the violence are fearful that giving up Home Affairs will lead to their prosecution.

Although Tsvangirai has not called for prosecutions, the power-sharing agreement does not rule them out.

The MDC views the Finance Ministry as the key to the resuscitation of Zimbabwe's economy, which is beset by the world's highest inflation rate. Western donors have agreed to funnel aid money to Zimbabwe only if a true unity government is formed, and analysts say such assistance is unlikely if Mugabe continues to control the ministry that has overseen Zimbabwe's economic meltdown.

Mugabe has used the Finance Ministry to recklessly print money and fuel a patronage system that has rewarded allies who are loath to give up their privileges.

"Mugabe is aware that he cannot hold on to Finance. . . . Donors are not going to give us a cent if there is a Mugabe man in that post," said one MDC negotiator. And yet, the negotiator said, "Mugabe is saying there is no need to specify which party holds which post because this is a government of national unity."

As the talks continue, aid groups say the humanitarian situation is growing more dire in Zimbabwe, where staples are scarce and exorbitantly expensive. The United Nations said last week that half of the nation's 12 million people would likely be dependent on food aid by next spring unless there is an influx of international assistance.

A Washington Post special correspondent in Harare, Zimbabwe, contributed to this report.

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