Last chance for AU to rein in butcher of Harare

By Juma Kwayera

The African Union and the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) are under pressure to flex their muscle to compel Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to honour last September's power-sharing agreement with the opposition to end the current humanitarian crisis.

The AU summit, which meets in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from tomorrow has come under criticism for not doing enough to hoist the Southern African nation from slipping further into the abyss. The AU will not escape international admonition if it tucks the Zimbabwean crisis under the carpet as it wont to do.

The standoff between Mugabe and his rival, Movement for Democratic Change
(MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai, had by the close of this week fomented fresh turmoil. The military was reportedly on the verge of mutiny to compel the government to pay salaries for the disciplined forces, which were in arrears by as many as three months.

The mutiny could have come at a worse time for Mugabe, now under pressure to quit to prevent Zimbabwe from further chaos triggered by last year’s flawed presidential election.

That a solution to the crisis remains remote even as Sadc members meet tomorrow in Pretoria in a fresh attempt to break the impasse was evident last week when MDC called for a third way to force Mugabe to give up some executive powers.

But Mugabe has already warned that he will not make further concessions until Tsvangirai, who according to the September power-sharing accord is expected to become the prime minister, takes the oath of office.

"This is the occasion when it is either, they accept, or it is a break. If they have any (other) issues they deem outstanding, they can raise them after they come into the inclusive government," Mugabe was quoted by the Sunday Mail ahead of last Monday’s meeting that failed to resolve the deadlock.

On Thursday, Amnesty International Deputy Programme Director for Africa Programme Veronique Aubert attacked the AU for condoning gross human rights transgressions in Zimbabwe. "African leaders have squandered numerous opportunities to end the persecution of government critics in Zimbabwe. They continue to be deaf to cries for help and have chosen to be unmoved by ongoing evidence of human suffering in the country," Aubert said.

The Zimbabwe political stalemate has spilled over to the neighbouring states with South Africa, Botswana and Namibia absorbing much of the humanitarian pressure generated by Mugabe’s reluctance to shed some of the executive powers.

According to the World Food Programme and UNHCR, more than five million Zimbabweans face a serious food crisis – a direct outcome of the government’s controversial land policies. The worsening food situation is exacerbated by a cholera epidemic, which the World Health Organisation estimates to have claimed more than 2,500 people by yesterday.

At least 42,000 others have been infected with the epidemic, but WHO on Wednesday sounded an alert that this figure is set to escalate to more than 60,000 in the absence of massive intervention, a capacity the Harare regime lacks.

"Shortages of medicines, equipment and staff at health facilities throughout the country are compounding the health challenges. The outbreak could surpass 60,000 cases, according to estimates by Zimbabwe Health Cluster . a group comprising health providers, NGOs and the Ministry of Health," WHO says in a post on its website.

Unicef Executive Director Ann Veneman, during a visit to Harare where she donated $5 million (Sh380 million) to roll back the epidemic, said: "The cholera outbreak is the tip of the iceberg. The economy in Zimbabwe is crumbling, with the highest inflation rate in the world at 231 million per cent."

To cope up with rising demand for currency, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe unveiled early this month a Z$100 trillion note – just enough to buy two loaves of bread. The galloping inflation exacerbated by spiking food insecurity has snowballed into a social crisis which analysts say could force Mugabe to relent on his hard-line stance.

With land abandoned and diamond mining undermined by international boycott on local products, the Zimbabwe government has resorted to printing paper cash, which has in turn stoked inflation.

The latest Human Rights Watch (HRW) published on Thursday blames the Zimbabwean authorities for the humanitarian crisis, which it links to the political imbroglio in the country.

"Endemic corruption within state-run agricultural institutions such as the Grain and Marketing Board and by Zanu-PF’s political elite has also led to severe shortages of seed and other farming supplies such as fertiliser. Many of the government’s agricultural policies have benefited the pro-Zanu-PF political elite," HRW says in its 33-page document that calls for AU and Sadc intervention.

It adds: "The Zimbabwean authorities have diverted state-subsidised maize, seed, fuel, and cheap tractors meant for local farmers to local Zanu-PF officials and governors, who have then sold them on the black market at high prices unaffordable for most Zimbabweans. And the government has done little to address the corrupt practices that have affected the food supply."

The HRW report supports a UN assessment of the dire situation in Zimbabwe:
"The cholera epidemic is just the latest crisis to hit Zimbabwe, which has been faced with a worsening humanitarian situation owing to years of failed harvests, bad governance and hyperinflation, as well as months of political tensions after disputed presidential elections in March involving the incumbent Robert Mugabe and the opposition figure Tsvangirai."

The latest assessment of the Zimbabwe political deadlock by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an international humanitarian organisation, termed as hopeless in its latest report the current efforts by Sadc members to bring the two Zimbabwean leaders to the negotiating table.

It pointed out "implementation of the flawed power-sharing deal negotiated by former South African president Thabo Mbeki following the fraudulent June
2008 presidential election run-off is hopelessly deadlocked."

"Creating a government with two centres of power is inherently unworkable in the current non-cooperative environment," ICG warned in a report titled Appoint Neutral Interim Government. The report was emailed to The Standard on Saturday last week.

The onus of resolving the Zimbabwe impasse now rests with the AU, which under the chairmanship of Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete has done little more than pay lip service to the crisis. Having failed to cede ground to each other in a 12-hour meeting on Monday, it appears the deeply divided Sadc bloc will take over the mediation mantle from South African president Kgalema Motlanthe. The bloc tried through former Zambian President Levi Mwanawasa to break the deadlock, but met with quiet resistance from Thabo Mbeki, his South African counterpart who was forced out of power late last year.

The political impasse has made it difficult for parliament, itself legitimate, to convene and discuss the crisis. Perhaps, the parliamentarians could start by preparing a constitutional amendment to create a non-partisan transitional administration to govern for 18 months, under the leadership of a chief administrator – a neutral Zimbabwean from the private sector, civil society or an international institution. The person should be chosen by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, and would be ineligible to stand for president in the next election or serve as prime minister after it.

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