As Zimbabwe's Unity Government Begins, Opposition Official Is Arrested
Saturday, February 14, 2009
HARARE, Zimbabwe, Feb. 13 -- This was not the way Zimbabwe's unity government was supposed to start.
On Friday morning, Zimbabwe's new prime minister said that despite the years of state-sponsored arrests, beatings and persecution he and his supporters have endured, he now trusts his partner in a new power-sharing administration, President Robert Mugabe.
"This is not a trap," opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said in an interview here. "There is a high degree of confidence that is building up."
Hours later, though, police arrested a top opposition official set to become a deputy minister next week. Then Mugabe showed up at an inauguration ceremony for cabinet members with plans to swear in more ministers than his party had been allotted.
The events, coming two days after Tsvangirai became prime minister of this collapsing nation, could heighten tensions between his party and that of Mugabe, his longtime foe. They appeared to bear out the warnings raised in recent weeks by skeptics of the power-sharing agreement that Mugabe and his allies have no intention of governing fairly alongside their new partners.
Tsvangirai and his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, negotiated the power-sharing deal with Mugabe's party for five months as opposition officials expressed doubts about Mugabe's motives. Tsvangirai outpolled Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe for 29 years, in presidential elections last year but pulled out of a runoff after state security forces attacked and killed dozens of opposition supporters.
Roy Bennett, a white farmer and MDC treasurer general who was nominated to be deputy agriculture minister, was arrested Friday at a Harare airport after days of pursuit by state security agents, according to the party. Bennett, who had recently returned from exile in South Africa after fleeing accusations of attempting to overthrow Mugabe, was charged with treason, the party said.
The arrest prompted a rapid-fire series of e-mailed statements from the MDC, which has been demanding the release of dozens of political prisoners.
Bennett, the party said initially, had been taken to a "notorious torture and interrogation base." In successive statements the party said he was taken to a police station, then spotted in a silver pickup at a gas station, then delivered to another station near Zimbabwe's border with Mozambique, where "hundreds of MDC members and supporters" gathered and police fired live ammunition into the air.
Meanwhile, the cabinet swearing-in ceremony was delayed for hours over seven additional junior ministers Mugabe wanted to include. In the end, an MDC spokesman said, the MDC gained one additional minister without portfolio, while Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, gained two.
"When I say I am committed, I mean it," Mugabe said at the ceremony. "When I say I want to work with you sincerely and honestly, I mean it."
The MDC referred to the cabinet confusion as a "ZANU-PF circus."
"The traditional pasture of patronage has dwindled due to the nature and composition of the inclusive government," the party said in a statement, which concluded that the cabinet controversy "points to back-stage chaos and confusion as the various camps within ZANU-PF seek to position their people in the inclusive government."
Tsvangirai arrived at the interview escorted by Zimbabwe's feared Central Intelligence Organization, an agency that had previously been tasked with pursuing him. He sounded upbeat about the coalition and becoming prime minister after years of battling Mugabe's iron-fisted rule.
"There is a sense of being vindicated, that our struggle was justified, that it was necessary to persevere," he said.
Tsvangirai said he was certain that Mugabe, who will turn 85 next Saturday, had agreed to share power because he wanted to leave a legacy as a "statesman."
"His motivation was to end his political life with a positive legacy, and not to end with a damaging legacy," Tsvangirai said. Asked if he believed Mugabe's intentions going into the coalition government were pure, he said: "Oh, yeah. All leaders want to be remembered for what was good.
He also said that he was entering the government with skepticism and that he knew some Mugabe allies resented -- and would perhaps try to undermine -- the deal. But, he said: "You cannot afford to have doubt."