While the United States and most of the world celebrated the inauguration of Barack Obama, the people of Zimbabwe were once again being pushed to the brink. Talks between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangarai have broken down over several key issues, prompting Tsvangarai to say: "For us as the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), this is probably the darkest day of our lives, for the whole nation is waiting."
At the heart of the dispute is control of key ministries in the power-sharing arrangement being pushed by the South African Development Community (SADC) and its chief mediator, former South African President Thado Mbeki. It appears that the SADC agreement is basically the same one that was put on the table last September, essentially undermining attempts by the Tsvangarai faction to assume some control over key ministries that the Mugabe camp refuses to cede.
In other words, Mbeki is promoting a compromise plan without a compromise. Although the plan calls for Tsvangarai to assume the post of prime minister, it also allows for Mugabe to appoint two vice-presidents from his ZANU-PF party, and it fails to specify which ministries will go to the MDC and which to ZANU-PF. MDC has made it clear that it wants -- at least -- Home Affairs and Finance, but Mugabe refuses to budge. So the Zimbabwean danse macabre continues.
This outcome, which spells disaster for the people of Zimbabwe, might have been avoided if Mbeki and the other SADC leaders had taken a harder line with Mugabe from the beginning. Instead, the Zimbabwean president feels he has a mandate to make whatever shoddy offer he pleases to his opponents in a take-it-or-leave-it strategy that Tsvangarai has decided is just too paltry.
Headlines dealing with Zimbabwe dwell on the collapsing economy and health-care system, and calls from international activists for military intervention are growing. But there are still people working within the broken-down Zimbabwean judicial system to address some critical legal issues, particularly around land-reform.
The issue is whether the people in Mugabe's inner circle who benefited from land confiscations will be able to hold on to all of their ill-gotten gains, since the compromise agreement says explicitly that beneficiaries can only hold one farm at a time. Many white farmers view this as an opening to use the court system to get their land -- or at least portions of it -- back, and to resume pursuing their livelihoods on some of Africa's richest soil.
The simple fact that white farmers have yet to pack up and leave their native country suggests that, from their perspective, there is still hope.
International activists who have called for military intervention seem to forget the lessons of the Congo, where marauding interveners from multiple countries raped and plundered their way across the landscape, doing nothing but enriching themselves while further destabilizing a chaotic situation. To think that wouldn't happen in Zimbabwe is naïve. Even though the situation is dire, it is still salvageable through diplomacy if the right approach to dealing with Mugabe's ego and the ZANU-PF's power needs can be found.
The first step would be to replace Mbeki as chief negotiator, since his approach has proven to be bankrupt. The next step would be to entice Mugabe back to the negotiating the table by offering various types of investments and amnesties. The third step would be to give Tsvangarai and the MDC all the support they need to keep the pressure on Mugabe for the time it takes to peacefully remove him from power and return the country to democratic rule.
That could mean several more years of hard times for the citizens of Zimbabwe. But no matter how bad things get in the near future, nothing would be worse for the Zimbabwean people than to have a major military operation, directed by outsiders, roll through their lives.
World Policy Review/Jan 22, 2009