Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Both Sides Show Willing in Zimbabwean Dispute

Friends of Zimbabwe’s government and opposition pressure them to talk to each other.
By Meshack Ndodana
The signing of an agreement to start substantive talks on a transitional administration for Zimbabwe reflects the pressure placed on both government and opposition to come to the negotiating table.

President Robert Mugabe and Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, leader Morgan Tsvangirai signed the Memorandum of Understanding, MoU, at a historic meeting in Harare on July 21. Arthur Mutambara, who leads a minority faction of the MDC, also signed the document, as did South African president Thabo Mbeki, whose mediation efforts secured this deal.

The document lays the foundations for a dialogue, expected to last two weeks, on a range of issues, the most important of which is the formation of a new “inclusive government”.

The signatories commit themselves to “putting an end to the polarisation, divisions, conflict and intolerance that have characterised our country’s politics”, and to creating “a society free of violence, fear, intimidation, hate, patronage [and] corruption”.

As well as a new government, items on the agenda for the talks include an end to violence, rule of law, freedom to pursue political activity, a new constitution for Zimbabwe, and rebuilding the economy.

Television footage showed the two rivals, Mugabe and Tsvangirai, shaking hands and exchanging the signed documents. The South African leader presided, with Tsvangirai sitting to his left.

In a speech following the signing ceremony, Tsvangirai declared that “failure was not an option” and promised that he would “not be found wanting” in the pursuit of a settlement. The welfare of Zimbabweans must be placed before “personal interests”, he said.

For his part, Mugabe thanked Mbeki for his mediating role, saying the South African leader had been right to disregard “ignorant criticism” of his role.

The signing was a major coup for Mbeki, who has faced accusations, including from the MDC, that he is too accommodating towards Mugabe. At this event, Tsvangirai tacitly acknowledged Mbeki’s success by noting that this was the first time since 1987 that he had been in the same room as Mugabe.

The deal is an attempt to solve Zimbabwe’s long-running political and economic crisis, which has been exacerbated by two rounds of elections in recent months. In the first, held on March 29, the MDC wrested control of parliament from ZANU-PF and Tsvangirai won more votes than Mugabe in the presidential ballot. These unexpected successes sparked a wave of violence against MDC activists and supporters, leading Tsvangirai to pull out of the presidential run-off, so that Mugabe was re-elected unopposed.

The signing of the memorandum came after Tsvangirai won acceptance for some of the points he had set as preconditions for embarking on talks.

One demand that has been met is that the mediation effort should be widened beyond Mbeki’s team, who operate under a mandate from the Southern African Development Community, SADC. At a meeting in Pretoria on July 18, it was agreed to set up a three-member “reference group” to oversee the negotiation process, which Mbeki will still lead. The troika will consist of African Union commission chairman Jean Ping, the United Nations special envoy for Zimbabwe, Haile Menkerios, and George Chikoti from the SADC.

Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for Tsvangirai’s faction of the MDC, described the involvement of the three envoys as “a positive and encouraging development that will embolden the integrity of the process [and] add international stamina, stressing the urgent seriousness required to solve this crisis".

Another condition the MDC had set for the talks was an end to the political violence. Chamisa warned that the attacks were still going on.

“We in the MDC are ready to negotiate at any time. The only problem we have is a sincerity deficit and a catalogue of bad faith acts by ZANU-PF,” he said. “They want to negotiate with us on the one hand and on the other continue to detain and beat up our supporters.”

He also accused ZANU-PF officials of trying to coopt MDC members of parliament into their version of the proposed interim administration. “Of late they have been approaching our members of parliament behind scenes to join them in a government of national unity. That cannot be good for the negotiation process,” he said.

Political analysts inside Zimbabwe say both ZANU-PF and the MDC are under intense pressure to come to the negotiating table and demonstrate that they are not the recalcitrant party.

Facing the threat of new United Nations sanctions, the government got a lucky escape on July 11, when China and Russia vetoed the measure in the Security Council. For Eldred Masunungure, a professor of politics at the University of Zimbabwe, that has placed the regime under more pressure, rather than less, to show flexibility.

“Mugabe and ZANU-PF have been keen to be on their best behaviour,” he said. “They must now demonstrate to China and Russia that their faith in the negotiation process was not misplaced. There may be no second chance.”

When the idea of a negotiated settlement resurfaced following the June 27 polls, the MDC initially dragged its feet because it did not want to be seen to legitimise Mugabe’s election victory and tactics. Now, however, the party has realised it must show its friends and sympathisers abroad that it is prepared to be part of the solution.

“The MDC is to Africa what ZANU-PF is to Russia and China. They both have a responsibility to those trying to speak for their cause and cannot afford to be obstructionist,” said an analyst based in the country, who did not want to be identified. “They are both under pressure now to behave properly.”

The analyst said the fact that the tripartite “reference group” had been agreed as a concession to the MDC would place pressure on the party to be seen to be cooperative.

The opposition, he said, would not want to be seen to be “taking an unyielding position at a time when it is beginning to get a sympathetic ear” from many African leaders.

The MDC is also under domestic pressure, he added, noting last week’s statement by a group of civil society organisations sympathetic to the opposition, which called for a transitional government to be headed by a neutral figure – certainly not by Mugabe, but not by Tsvangirai, either.

“This should be a warning to the MDC that people are getting impatient for results and an end to their misery,” said the analyst.

The success of the dialogue between ZANU-PF and MDC will depend to a large extent on whether they can agree a mutually acceptable form of government – especially one in which the opposition is treated as an equal player, and not simply given token representation.

Whatever the NGOs think, Tsvangirai has made it clear he should head any transitional administration since he won more votes in the March 29 polls, while Mugabe insists he should take charge because he won the June 27 vote. He is said to be keen for the deal to allow parliament and a substantive cabinet to be sworn sooner rather than later.

The memorandum Mugabe and Tsvangirai signed provides only the bare bones for talks on this issue; success will depend on whether it can be given substance.

Meshack Ndodana is the pseudonym of a reporter in Harare.

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