Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Worst Job in the World

In case you missed it, tomorrow marks one week since Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. Also, in keeping with my recent theme of birthdays and evil, February 21st will be President Robert Mugabe's birthday. Causes for celebration, no? Maybe, but once again the news out of Zimbabwe seems to be going from bad to worse. Mugabe has perfected his imitation of Muhammed Ali's rope-a-dope fighting technique, always seeming to come off the ropes at a difficult angle, his opponents never able to get a clean shot. Sadly, the constant stream of bad news has not only created apathy outside of Zimbabwe, where most have grown immune to the absurdity of the situation, it has also lead to the only opposition voice accepting a deal that seems doomed to failure.

The illusion of compromise is what Mugabe and his South African collaborators have crafted over the past few months. After what seemed like endless wrangling, a power sharing deal was finally worked out where Tsvangirai would become PM and his MDC party along with the Arthur Mutambara's breakaway faction would be granted 16 ministerial posts (13 & 3) while Mugabe would remain President and his Zanu-PF party would get 15 ministries. All good in theory, all bad in practice. The issue of who would get which ministry took ages to sort out; first Mugabe grabbed the three most critical posts, defence, home affairs - which is in charge of the police - and finance, but in the end conceded the finance ministry to the MDC and a sharing arrangement for home affairs. Here's where the real comedy starts. The swearing in ceremony for the ministers took place last Friday, coincidentally the same day Tsvangirai's pick for deputy minister of agriculture was arrested, charged with conspiracy to commit banditry, sabotage and terrorism. Roy Bennett, a former white farmer (well, he's still white, but his land was stolen by Mugabe) and current MDC treasurer has been jailed indefinitely. Next, Mugabe brings a list of 22 names to be sworn in as ministers at the ceremony (remember, only 15 Robert), causing delay and confusion which eventually resulted in around 35 ministers being sworn in when the original number was to be 31 (best list I can find is here). I'm afraid the battle that took place over the scraps of power, fist fights were reported, will be indicative of what's to come as the survival instinct kicks in for Mugabe's cronies.

If not for the Bennett arrest, the biggest ministerial story would be the finance portfolio. In a country where inflation is off the charts (does 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent - 65 followed by 107 zeros make any sense to you?), they've recently minted a 100 trillion dollar note, gold is exchanged for necessities and a move to the South African Rand and dollarization is occurring, the most important post allocated to the opposition MDC should be that of finance minister. Tsvangirai chose long time supporter Tendai Biti, a man who until just a few weeks ago was languishing in a Harare prison on treason charges. In what are said to be his first comments on receiving word of his posting, Biti was quoted as saying, "The job is the worst in the world but I will have to look the job in the eye and I have no doubt that I will be equal to the task and will prevail". The economy is broken and he will have little real power to do anything as central bank chief Gideon Gono, an ally of Mr. Mugabe’s, pulls the levers. Gono has done everything possible to drive the economy into the ground. The man living in a 47-bedroom house has overseen the collapse from exporting powerhouse to the present state and to this day doesn't blame Mugabe or himself, but, like his boss, blames the west. The root cause can clearly be found in the land seizures of the white minority commercial farms, destroying property rights, collapsing food production, foreign investment, lending and land values, with a bit of international (never effectively targeted) sanctions to wrap it up. The vicious circle, once started, has only been reinforced by every stupid move that Gono makes.

Unbelievably, it appears things are about to actually take a turn for the worse instead of improving. There are growing whispers that there could be a coup in the making, orchestrated by the Joint Operations Command (JOC), a five-man body comprising the chiefs of the army, air force, police, prisons and intelligence - the most powerful men in the country. All five boycotted last Wednesday's and Friday's swearing-in ceremonies for Tsvangirai and the country's new ministers. Tsvangirai himself seemed to hint at this reality the other day saying "We have to budget for some residual resistance from those who see this deal as a threat to their interest". In a Guardian interview he went on to say, "Unfortunately people are preoccupied with Mugabe as a person. They need to get over it. This has gone beyond Mugabe. People need to stop talking about him as the only issue. Mugabe is part of the problem but he is also part of the solution. He is not the obstacle we are now facing". Even more worrying are the acts of provocation against the MDC: the arrest of Roy Bennett, and the refusal to release political prisoners whom Tsvangirai has demanded be released. The same men have openly declared they would never salute Tsvangirai. It's no wonder as these five have the most to lose if the new government manages to function and reduce corruption: everything from choice land to having first dibs on the food and fuel that does manage to make it into the country, which are then sold at favourable prices to parallel market operators who profit from shortages. Already the MDC controlled parliament has approved a law that creates a new National Security Council to be accountable both to the MDC and the Zanu-PF.

Keep in mind that Robert Mugabe turns 85 years-old later this month and has been in power for 29 years, even he knows that all things must eventually come to an end. Could his blowout birthday bash this Saturday be a last hoorah? In a country where 94 per cent are jobless and cholera rampages through a population debilitated by hunger, a wish list has been sent out to the party faithful soliciting the following: 2,000 bottles of champagne (Moët & Chandon or ’61 Bollinger preferred); 8,000 lobsters; 100kg of prawns; 4,000 portions of caviar; 8,000 boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates; 3,000 ducks; and much else besides...Those who prefer to give in cash, not kind, are invited to send “donations” of between $45,000 and $55,000 to a US dollar bank account." Add to this the revelations of the Mugabe's recent property purchases in Asia, including a £4 million residential complex in Hong Kong, where wife Grace has managed to do some shopping and investing when she's not too busy punching photographers. The investing? In case you couldn't guess, a diamond cutting and polishing venture in China.

Of course, the more likely course of events will see Tsvangirai squeezed out as the JOC is probably acting in concert with Mugabe. After all, Mugabe doesn't have a good record of playing nicely with rivals; remember Joshua Nkomo, the man Mugabe sent the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade to kill. Nkomo escaped, but 20,000 Ndebele civilians didn't. Sounds like the election campaign last year, so the status quo continues and Zimbabwe eventually becomes a failed state. Option 2 somehow sees the power sharing arrangement survive, not likely given the fact that most of the people who are in the Zanu-PF cabinet are the same ones that composed the previous one, which even Mugabe called "the worst ever". The first real test will come shortly as Tsvangirai has promised to pay all 150,000 civil servants salaries pegged to foreign currencies; problem is, there won't be any foreign reserves to pay them as Gono has given it all to Grace to go shopping. Maybe they'll at least have time to force Mugabe to extradite Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former Ethiopian dictator who slaughtered opponents on an industrial scale in the “Red Terror”, to Addis Ababa for execution. Or, will it be door #3, a coup d'etat, with the JOC taking control, most likely with the support of those members of the Zanu-PF who have lost their positions due to the power sharing agreement, perhaps even getting Nkomo's old PF-Zapu party back together? Not exactly Let's Make a Deal where the worst door you could choose often left the contestant with a goat, a luxury beyond the reach of most Zimbabweans today.