Zimbabwe in Transition: A 100-Day Report Card

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Jekesai Nijikzana / AFP / Getty

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai gestures to President Robert Mugabe in Harare

As of May 23, 2009, it's been 100 days since Zimbabwe passed from crisis into the hands of the strange and strained partnership of President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the nation autocratically since 1987, and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who defeated Mugabe in a controversial election last year but, despite intense international pressure, was not able to oust him from power.

Not everything is bad. Tsvangirai has made some progress in resurrecting Zimbabwe's all-but-dead economy. Schools that closed last September after teachers went on strike have reopened. Zimbabweans can now go to shops to buy basic goods that had not been available for 10 years, such as maize meal, sugar, cooking oil and salt (previously they had to be purchased in neighboring Botswana or South Africa and brought into the country). "I think they have done a lot," says economist John Robertson, "but prices must go down, and that will happen only when production improves." He adds, "Our [labor costs] are still high compared to other countries' in the region."

Infrastructure and sanitation remain huge problems. Major roads are still in need of repair; large towns still do not have safe tap water. Schools cannot provide students with textbooks, and civil servants grumble over the $100 monthly salary they receive. And Zimbabwe owes international financial organizations more than $1 billion. While the World Bank has agreed to resume aid to Zimbabwe for the first time since 2000 with a tentative $22 million grant, bigger loans will follow only after Harare retires its debt.

Western aid could help alleviate some aspects of Zimbabwe's perpetual crisis. Zimbabwe is looking for about $8.5 billion to revive its battered economy, but Western donors have refused to release meaningful amounts of development aid until the new government shows evidence of true reform. Robertson asks, "Is Mugabe willing to meet the conditions [set by the West] of rule of law, etc....? He has shown he is not ready to do so." He adds, "Unless the West comes in, things like cholera outbreaks will remain, as we cannot afford to replenish our water and sewage system."

The sticking point is democratic freedoms, particularly the right of journalists to report the news. Prime Minister Tsvangirai declared that all the banned foreign media organizations — such as CNN and BBC — were now free to operate from Zimbabwe. But Mugabe's faction has not made operating easy, especially for the local reporters the foreign media often hire to help gather information.

The plight of Zimbabwean journalists remains dire. Earlier in May, two Zimbabwe Independent editors, Vincent Kahiya and Constantine Chimakure, were arrested for publishing a story the government said was "materially false and meant to make the public develop hatred towards the police." The paper had written a story revealing names of police officers who had allegedly tortured human-rights activists in jail. "It seems there is still a long way to go insofar as human-rights issues are concerned," says Leonard Makombe, a political commentator. "That might strangle the government, as it depends on Western aid for survival. That aid can only come if human-rights violations and media freedom is seen to be done and not talked about."

The government has not repealed draconian media laws nor introduced a new media-governing board as promised. Says Makombe: "The much talked-about 100 days have gone by, and it is still no show. All [politicians] talk about is the economy and why so-and-so has not released funds, yet they have other major issues to address."

Meanwhile, Tsvangirai accused Mugabe of making unilateral decisions in appointing senior government officials such as the attorney general, the central-bank head and diplomats. The Prime Minister's political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has since called on the Southern African Development Community — which brokered the power-sharing deal — to mediate between it and Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU-PF). The MDC has accused Mugabe and ZANU-PF of stonewalling on issues like the continuing arrests of pro-democracy activists, lawyers and journalists and the ongoing invasions of white-owned farms.

The government's response to charges of journalistic harassment has been to ask for patience. "Journalists need to put everything into perspective," says Webster Shamu, Zimbabwe's Information Minister and a Mugabe appointee. "When [the coalition] started, we first needed to study and learn to trust each other. We have achieved that, and we are now looking at the problems our people are facing. It would be wrong to say the first 100 days were wasted. They were 100 days of serious hard work."