February 12, 2009 | WebMemo on Africa
Morgan Tsvangirai of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has been inaugurated as the prime minister of Zimbabwe, but many remain pessimistic about the country's prospects for political stability or economic recovery.
If the power-sharing deal brokered by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is going to help average Zimbabweans, the international donor community must engage. In order to engage, the political arrangement must hold and donors must have strict assurances that resources will flow transparently and effectively to arrest the humanitarian catastrophe that is facing the majority of Zimbabweans.
An Imperfect Arrangement
The power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe is less than perfect and is not a victory for African democracy, but it could be a step in the right direction. Almost one year ago, in March 2008, the MDC participated in a badly flawed electoral process yet still managed to win control of parliament, and Tsvangirai beat Robert Mugabe in the presidential race. Tsvangirai was denied an outright victory and forced into a run-off election with the dictator Mugabe. With political violence on the rise and food used as a weapon against his supporters, Tsvangirai pulled out of the presidential run-off in June 2008. Not even regional leaders who had been reluctant to criticize Mugabe could accept as legitimate his overwhelming victory in the sham election. Forced to negotiate for the first time in his 28 years of power, Mugabe maintained his seat as president with the help of SADC leaders. In exchange, he agreed to a power-sharing arrangement signed in September 2008.
The mere fact that the shared government took from September to February to form shows that Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party remain disingenuous to the core and callous to the suffering of the average Zimbabwean. In the end, SADC leaders did not pressure Mugabe to make necessary concessions but instead painted Tsvangirai as the impediment to peace. The MDC had little room to maneuver and was forced to accept a deal that many observers have already deemed a failure.
The break in Mugabe's complete stranglehold on power comes at a critical time for Zimbabwe's future. Once known as "the breadbasket of the continent," the country is ravaged by cholera, with more than 70,000 confirmed cases and nearly 4,000 deaths. The unemployment rate is an astonishing 94 percent. HIV /AIDS and food shortages push down life expectancy to just 34 years, among the lowest in the world. Of Zimbabwe's 12 million people, 4 million have left the country, and estimates suggest that the more than 5 million people remaining in the country require emergency food assistance.
For those policymakers and donors who would be more pragmatic and focused on transitioning Zimbabwe away from failed-state status, there is a time-limited window of opportunity to act. As part of the government, the MDC must now deliver a solution. Prime Minister Tsvangirai announced his intention to focus on the country's cholera epidemic and its emergency food needs. The MDC will have few tools at its disposal without outside donor help. Channeled properly and transparently, humanitarian assistance could start to lift the country out of its doomed status, but Zimbabweans will also need help far beyond just food and health interventions if the country is ever to recover.
Recommendations for Congress and the Obama Administration:
A Crucial Juncture
Mugabe and his ZANU-PF supporters have been the biggest obstacle to past efforts to alleviate the suffering in Zimbabwe. Their recent compromise, however limited in scope, offers a window of opportunity that must be seized. International donors, including the U.S., must responsibly engage the new democratic forces within the government of Zimbabwe. This includes the immediate delivery of humanitarian assistance and a carefully structured framework for future development assistance--provided its distribution is not constrained or conditioned by political demands. Wait-and-see approaches have not worked in Zimbabwe, and America may be seeing its last best hope for saving the country.
Thomas M. Woods is Senior Associate Fellow in African Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.