In an extraordinary ceremony in Harare yesterday, long-term tyrant Robert Mugabe swore in his biggest enemy Morgan Tsvangirai as Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister. The deal got the go-ahead last week after months of negotiations over power sharing and a disputed presidential election that saw Mugabe steal victory earlier in the year. While many observers believe Tsvangirai is dancing with the devil, the new Prime Minister knows he will have more power to change the system from the inside than from the outside.
The swearing-in ceremony began with the pair shaking hands. Then Tsvangirai raised his right hand and pledged an oath where he promised to be faithful to Zimbabwe, observe its laws and serve it well. The two rival leaders then signed papers and shook hands again to complete a grim-faced encounter. Two deputy prime ministers were also sworn in. They were Thokozani Khupe, Tsvangirai’s deputy and Arthur Mutambara, the leader of a breakaway faction from Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party.
But outwardly Mugabe remains the master and immediately used his power to prevent the new Prime Minister from getting promised air time on Zimbabwean state TV after taking the oath. Nevertheless, the day belonged to Morgan Tsvangirai. After the ceremony was complete, Tsvangirai was quick to thank his supporters. He addressed an ecstatic 10,000 strong crowd at the Harare Agricultural Show Grounds and laid out his priorities for the restoration of democracy. These included the release of political prisoners, tackling the humanitarian crisis, especially the nation’s chronic cholera epidemic, and stabilising an economy that has led to 94 percent unemployment and a worthless national currency worthless. The Zimbabwean people "face many challenges but we are brave and resourceful," he said. "By uniting as a nation and a people we can succeed.”
What Tsvangirai did not mention is what he must have given away to get some power from Mugabe. The British Government is among many who doubt the workability of the new arrangement. The main concern is the extent of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party control over the machinery of government and the security services. This became immediately apparent in the television incident as Tsvangirai was prevented from doing a national address after taking the oath. Lord Malloch Brown, the foreign office minister responsible for Africa, said "We're sceptical but we've got to try and help this work."
Tsvangirai also felt the need to re-assure the sceptics. On the eve of his swearing-in he said the doubters needed to understand why he accepted the post and what he thought were the challenges of transition. "We have made this decision and we made it without being forced. We want our colleagues in the country and outside the country to approach it from that perspective,” he said. “It is our decision. Let history be the judge of this decision.”
But he also cautioned that it would take time to rebuild the country. His MDC party has been given the key ministries of finance and as well as co-sharing home affairs and health after the four month long haggling over cabinet positions. Geoffrey Hawker, an Africa expert at Macquarie University in Australia, told Al Jazeera he does not expect the gamble to succeed though he admitted Tsvangirai had little choice but to accept the terms. "He's been outside the tent for such a long time ... his supporters are growing very dispirited," Hawker said. "I don't have any doubt at all that Mugabe is going to bide his time and see if he can cut him off, render him powerless ... so that Mugabe remains in control”.
There are also genuine questions whether Mugabe holds the reins of control at all. In June 2008, there were reports that a Joint Operations Command (JOC) had taken de facto power leaving Mugabe to be a figurehead. The most powerful figure in the junta is General Constantine Chiwenga, Zimbabwe's overall military chief. Chiwenga has been suspiciously quiet in the run-up to Tsvangirai’s accession to power. He was last heard from in January when the Angolan press reported him saying his troops would fight off any international peacekeeping force that might be sent to the country.
While Mugabe keeps the outward reins on power, his influence is likely to diminish as new actors take to the Zimbabwean stage. How Tsvangirai deals with the JOC and the unpredictable Chiwenga will prove the key challenge. He will need the full support of his party and key foreign actors including the UK Government. The detractors are right to be sceptical and Mugabe has form. But today's event is a good symbolic start towards the healing of Zimbabwe.