IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Tensions ease in Zimbabwe with deal

Zimbabweans, wary but hopeful, were trying this week to figure out the intricacies of the deal that has the country's ruler for 28 years, President Robert Mugabe, relinquishing some power to bitter rival Morgan Tsvangirai.
Image: A young boy lifts a bucket filled with ground water in Harare, Zimbabwe
A young boy lifts a bucket filled with ground water in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Tuesday. The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe says Washington stands ready to feed hungry Zimbabweans but the new unity government must prove its commitment to democracy before it will get development aid.  AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The soldiers shoved their way to the front of the winding line waiting to get cash at the bank. But this time was different: The military men were jeered, told "things have changed," and were forced to take a place at the back.

Already, Zimbabweans say, they can feel change.

President Robert Mugabe signed a power-sharing deal Monday with his bitter opposition rival, an accord that promises to return democracy to a weary nation beaten up and beaten down by political violence and economic collapse.

While the signing ceremony was going on, a group of militant Mugabe party supporters barged into a downtown supermarket and demanded a new delivery of scarce sugar. Before, they would have got what they wanted.

Instead, witnesses said the supermarket manager told the gang — including feared veterans of the war that swept Mugabe to power at independence in 1980 — that they could only have two, 2-kilogram (4.4 pound) bags each and that they had to wait in line with everyone else.

When they balked, he called police, who got them to leave.

Witnesses said an officer was overheard saying: "Forget it. Everyone has the same allocation now."

Just the day before, the police probably would have refused to confront the militants. But the witnesses still did not want to be named, fearing retaliation from the war veterans.

Zimbabweans, wary but hopeful, were trying this week to figure out the intricacies of the deal that has the country's ruler for 28 years, President Robert Mugabe, relinquishing some power to bitter rival Morgan Tsvangirai.

Tried for treason
Mugabe, 84, went from being praised as a liberator who freed the former British colony from minority white rule to being vilified as an autocrat. He and Tsvangirai, 56, have been enemies for a decade, and Tsvangirai has been jailed, beaten, tortured and tried for treason — charges that were dismissed in court.

The men's parties have yet to decide how to divide up portfolios for the Cabinet, where Mugabe's party has 15 ministers, Tsvangirai's 13 and a breakaway opposition faction led by Arthur Mutambara has three.

But the government-controlled Herald newspaper said Wednesday that key aspects of the power-sharing deal won't go into effect until next month.

Continued political delay means only more time before economic problems can be addressed. A resurgence of political violence, though, seemed unlikely. The country has been largely calm since June, and Mugabe and his rivals have said they want the agreement to work and the country to move forward.

Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, said the wait was tense.

"Clearly there is anxiety in the country," Chamisa said. "People would want to see movement in terms of the realization of the actual deal. As the MDC, we want to urgently respond to the desperate and dire situation Zimbabweans find themselves in."

Monday's agreement commits the parties to ensuring the police and military are "impartial in the discharge of their duties."

Both forces, along with war veterans and other Mugabe party militants, are blamed for violence around elections this year that killed more than 100 opposition supporters, left thousands with broken limbs from beatings and drove tens of thousands from their homes.

In downtown Harare, supporters of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change are wearing their party T-shirts and caps and waving their openhanded salute. In the past, they were wary of displaying party regalia and police frequently seized T-shirts and opposition literature during searches of buses and cars at road blocks.

At least two regular checkpoints in eastern Harare had disappeared by Tuesday.

During skirmishes between rival party supporters Monday, a police commander was overheard instructing his men in the local Shona language to "go by the book," or observe regulations on crowd control. Water cannon trucks were on standby but were not used nor was tear gas fired.

In the streets of the township of Chitungwiza, an opposition stronghold south of Harare, celebrations over the signing of the agreement went on late into Monday night, residents said.

Before, police and troops imposed an unofficial curfew in areas like Chitungwiza, forcing bars and cafes to close early, and dispersing gatherings at late-night markets and shops.

"It's almost like the old days. I don't feel threatened," said Ali Paraje, a mineworker visiting his family in the capital. "It's a start. Let's see how it works out, but it's good, and it's very good for my first born," he said, holding the hand of his 4-year-old son.

But an easing of repression will not put food on the table in Zimbabwe, which has been embroiled in political and economic turmoil since the seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms began in 2000. The seizures are blamed for destroying the agriculture-based economy in this former regional breadbasket.

Inflation at 40 million percent
Official inflation is now given as 11 million percent, by far the highest in the world. Independent financial institutions put real inflation closer to 40 million percent and rising daily.

In the past two weeks, prices of basic foods have more than doubled. Bread is almost impossible to find and supermarket shelves are emptier than ever before. In one store in the Harare suburb of Avondale, at least 330 yards of shelves were completely bare Tuesday, showing the worst shortages of goods since government-imposed price controls curbed production and spurred black market trading in June 2007.

In a move that acknowledged the failure of its monetary policies, the government last week announced it would license 1,000 wholesalers and 200 retailers to sell goods in foreign currency. That is a relief for those who have U.S. dollars and South African rand, but does nothing for the poor.

Tsvangirai said Tuesday that the United States would help with humanitarian aid but that U.S. development aid will be on hold until the new unity government proves its commitment to democracy.

Mugabe had blocked agencies from working months ago, charging they were only feeding opposition supporters. Last week he said he was ending the ban, but the agencies say they still have to reregister with the government and it will take time to get going again.

Muchadeyi Masunda, the independent mayor of Harare who is also a respected business leader, said Monday's agreement calls for "magnanimous give and take" by politicians.

"The economy has been under attack for too long," he said. "There has to be a paradigm shift in every sense of the word. Let's all lead by example and actually do things that reflect the realities on the ground."