Mugabe Pushes Back Against Zimbabwe Power-Sharing Deal

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Seth Wenig / AP

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe

A power-sharing deal meant to end Robert Mugabe's 28 years of one-man rule in Zimbabwe appeared close to disintegrating on Tuesday, with Mugabe's party and the opposition deadlocked on how to divide government ministries between them. Then South African President Thabo Mbeki had brokered the Sept. 15 agreement to resolve Zimbabwe's political crisis and set the stage for its economic revival, but the deal's implementation has stalled over how to allocate the 31 government ministries between Mugabe's Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai. As fears mounted that the agreement would collapse, Mbeki was asked by the MDC to intervene, but as of Tuesday, a spokesman said Mbeki had no immediate plans to return to Harare.

Although the power-sharing deal had been hailed as historic, it left many key disputes unresolved. The two sides had agreed that Mugabe would remain President while Tsvangirai would take up the newly created post of Prime Minister, and that Zanu-PF would get 15 ministries, Tsvangirai's MDC would have 13, and a breakaway MDC faction would have 3. But the two leaders did not specify which ministries would go to which party. Reports at the time suggested that the MDC would gain control of two key ministries, finance and home affairs (which controls the police), while Zanu-PF would retain defense. It now appears that there was no such understanding — or if there was, it has since been reversed — prompting fears of a breakdown that will plunge the country further into turmoil and uncertainty. On Tuesday, MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa told South African radio that signing a deal before agreeing on the details had been a "big mistake."

But there's more at work here than poor dealmaking: Since they agreed to share power, the world around Tsvangirai and Mugabe has changed. For one thing, Mbeki is no longer President of South Africa, Zimbabwe's powerful neighbor on which it remains heavily dependent. A few days after the Zimbabwe deal was concluded, Mbeki was ejected from office after losing a power struggle in South Africa's ruling party. Although Mbeki has been asked to stay on as mediator of the Zimbabwe talks, his own authority has been much diminished by his ouster. Global financial turmoil has also pushed Zimbabwe off the immediate agenda of the international community. And the combination of Mbeki's demise and international distraction may have emboldened the 84-year-old Mugabe and some of his cohorts to push back on a deal whose purpose had been to dilute their power. Mugabe denied last month that there was a deadlock, saying four ministries remained to be allocated and that a government would be established by the end of last week. That didn't happen. And according to a source close to Tsvangirai, Mugabe has been warning the opposition leader with whom he now confers regularly that the deal is far from done. "Tsvangirai said [he and Mugabe] now talk like friends. [Tsvangirai] asked Mugabe how things were in the Zanu-PF. Mugabe [replied] that some of his top ministers were against the deal, and think Mugabe sold out," the source said.

Zimbabwe's economic revival will depend on an extensive infusion of foreign aid and investment, which won't be forthcoming until the political conflict is settled. Unemployment stands at 80%, inflation has long since spiraled out of control and, with the collapse of farming, aid agencies are warning of widespread hunger in the next few months. But Mugabe's lieutenants have little incentive to compromise. Their hold on power has facilitated corruption; many have profited from the recent chaos by seizing land and making millions of dollars by working the difference between the black market and official rates of exchange between Zimbabwean and foreign currencies. A senior Zanu-PF official told TIME on condition of anonymity that the Sept. 15 deal was "a hundred steps backwards." She added, "These MDC people are coming into this government with vindictiveness. They are just coming to rob our gains. They want to give back the farms to the whites, and that is unacceptable. If I were Comrade Mugabe, I would not have embraced those people." One Harare-based political analyst, who also asked not to be named, added, "The problem is that Mugabe is surrounded by vultures who are hovering over the resources of the country. These are extremely rich people who don't want Tsvangirai in the picture because they fear crackdown."

But given the global financial turmoil and the political infighting in South Africa, Zimbabweans may have to bear the yoke of Mugabe and his regime for some time yet.

(Click here for photographs of political tension in Zimbabwe.)