Southern African leaders declared on Tuesday that Zimbabwe’s rival parties had agreed to form a unity government, but the opposition said that was not the case.
The continuing impasse leaves Zimbabwe embroiled in a prolonged and violent political crisis that has ruined a once-prosperous nation: half the population of the former food exporter faces starvation and a cholera epidemic caused by the collapse of water services has already killed about 3 000 people.
In a communique, nine nations’ leaders and Cabinet ministers from four other countries said a Zimbabwean prime minister — the post opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is to hold — would be sworn in on February 11 after Parliament passes a constitutional amendment creating the post. Ministers would be sworn in on February 13, the statement from the regional bloc said.
But Nqobizitha Mlilo, a spokesperson for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), told the Associated Press that "the MDC has not agreed to go into government of national unity."
He said his party’s leaders would meet on Friday to decide their next step.
South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), told reporters that the opposition had agreed to the coalition government.
"They will ensure that [the Constitutional amendment] is executed and they will present themselves" to form a government, he said.
But an MDC statement released soon after said the summit’s conclusions "fall far short of our expectations".
In Harare, political scientist Eldred Masunungure of the University of Zimbabwe agreed with the opposition that "this resolution doesn’t resolve anything".
He called it "a victory for Mugabe and Zanu-PF, but there isn’t much for the people of Zimbabwe to enjoy."
An opposition statement noted the summit had failed to address concerns including the equitable sharing of Cabinet posts and the abduction and alleged torture of opposition members by government security agents and police.
The MDC has consistently resisted pressure to join a coalition government, in which it is agreed that Mugabe would remain president, until these disputes are resolved.
The summit, however, agreed to Mugabe’s demand that the MDC first enter into government, then resolve outstanding issues.
The leaders also sided with Mugabe in insisting that the rival parties should share the Cabinet portfolio of home affairs — important because it oversees the police accused of kidnapping and brutalising opposition supporters.
Phandu Skelemani, the Foreign Minister of Botswana, which has been a lone voice in the region in criticising Mugabe, said the suggestion of sharing a ministry was "ridiculous".
Speaking in an interview with SW Radio Africa while the summit was taking place, Skelemani said the Southern African bloc "is divided because we simply don’t put the people first but rather an individual".
He said the leaders "feel some kind of obligation toward Mugabe", though, increasingly, some were speaking out in private.
Mugabe said earlier on Tuesday he hoped that the power-sharing agreement with the MDC would lead to a "new chapter".
"We hope that this will open up a new chapter in our political relations in the country and in structures of government," Mugabe told the state-run television at Harare airport on arriving from the summit held in South Africa.
"We agreed that an inclusive government should be formed. Dates have been stipulated for the various acts … starting with swearing-in of the top people, the prime minister, deputy prime ministers and ministers," Mugabe said.
"We will look at the concerns that the MDC raised regarding governors and other appointments."
Mugabe also said he hoped a parliamentary amendment would "lead to the legalisation of the agreement".
Both Mugabe and Tsvangirai are under pressure. Some of Tsvangirai’s allies say he never should have agreed to serve as prime minister under Mugabe, while Mugabe is constrained by military and civilian aides who don’t want to give up power and access to corrupt gains.
Leaders at this week’s summit appeared to ignore pressure from all fronts, including Roman Catholic bishops of Southern Africa who called on them to stop supporting Mugabe or accept complicity in a "passive genocide" of Zimbabweans dying of hunger and disease.
The collapse of the water system in Zimbabwe, exacerbated by the crumbling health-care system, has been blamed for the severity of a cholera outbreak that has killed about 3 000 people.
The United Nations on Tuesday put the death toll at 2 971, with more than 56 000 people infected.
The global body said more than one person in every 20 who contract cholera in Zimbabwe is dying. The usual mortality rate for large-scale outbreaks is one in 100.
In the United States, State Department spokesperson Robert Wood said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reviewing what more the Obama administration can do to help.
"We’re just very concerned about the behaviour of Mugabe," he said. "It appears to us that the regime has no interest in its own people …"
The European Union on Monday added 62 individuals and companies to a blacklist freezing assets and barring travel to those who funnel money to prop up Mugabe and his clique.
Schoolchildren turned away as teachers strike
Meanwhile, Zimbabwean teachers went on strike on Tuesday, paralysing schools on the opening day of the academic year as they protested monthly salaries that are as low as three US dollars.
Pupils had to be turned away as more than 80% of teachers heeded calls to strike, said Raymond Majongwe, head of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ).
"Teachers are sending a clear message that we are suffering. Government must start engaging us positively," Majongwe told AFP.
Schools in Harare asked pupils to return home after teachers failed to show.
"We have reached an 80% success rate as teachers did not report for work across the country. We will be hitting the 100% mark on Thursday," Majongwe warned.
Zimbabwe’s Education Ministry had put back school opening day by two weeks to Tuesday, blaming a delay in the marking of last year’s exam papers.
Many Zimbabwean teachers have fled to neighbouring countries in recent years because of the low salaries and the economic crisis ravaging the once prosperous country.
Zimbabwean teachers were this month paid 26-trillion Zimbabwe dollars, worth just three US dollars on the parallel market where most currency trading is done.
Teachers went on strike for the greater part of 2008 demanding to be paid salaries in line with the ever-rising inflation, last estimated at 231-million percent in July, but believed to be even higher now.
Striking teachers were on Tuesday demanding monthly salaries that would amount to US$2 200 before they would return to work.
Schools have proposed charging fees in foreign currency as the Zimbabwe dollar loses value every day.
Last year’s examinations papers are still to be marked. – Sapa-AFP, Sapa-AP