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Friday, 12 June 2009

12 June 2009

Do you think it might be time to start being nice to Zimbabwe again?

Yes, President Mugabe is still in power. And yes, as you’ll know if you’ve heard any of Mike Thomson’s reports on the Today programme this week, the place is still in an appalling mess.

But Morgan Tsvangirai, opposition leader turned Prime Minister, is currently on a six-nation tour trying to drum up some financial support for a government which, on paper at least, he now leads. He’s meeting President Obama today; he’ll be in London next week – and his message is simple enough: if you don’t help out my government now, it’ll collapse, and the alternative, in his words, “is too ghastly to contemplate”.

But here’s the problem: Western governments aren’t yet convinced that Mr Tsvangirai is really the man in charge. President Mugabe retains control of security, his cronies are still where they were – and crucially, the much-criticised governor of the central bank, Gideon Gono, is still in place.

Western governments want to make sure that if they do start handing over cash again, it won’t be siphoned off into sundry off-shore bank accounts. It might be possible to transfer money directly to, for example, the Health Ministry, which is controlled by Mr Tsvangirai’s MDC – but the risk is that that would free up other cash to be misused elsewhere.

Not a big risk, according to Teddy Brett of the Institute of Development Studies at the LSE, whom we spoke to on Wednsday’s programme – simply because nothing is currently being spent on health. Another option would be for donor governments to channel more cash through the international relief agencies. But Mr Tsvangirai isn’t keen on that because he wants to be able to show Zimbabwean voters that the MDC in government can make a difference.

The scale of suffering in Zimbabwe defies the imagination. It was once a model for sub-Saharan Africa; it is now a basket case. Millions of Zimbabweans have fled into neighbouring countries, mainly South Africa, to find work and food. No one denies that its people desperately need to be helped.

But the current position in Washington and the EU is that the unity government must do more to convince the outside world that it isn’t just a fig-leaf to cover the continuing brutality of President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. Mike Thomson’s interview with a senior MDC minister who says she and her colleagues still get daily phone calls threatening assassination is a stark reminder of political reality.

Bolstering just one party in a fragile coalition government is tricky, but that’s what donor nations seem to want to do. If Mr Tsvangirai can go back to Harare and tell his colleagues: “We’ll get more help, but only if ZANU-PF backs off”, then maybe there’s a chance of progress.

But if he goes home with the message: “I failed; I’ve come back empty-handed”, the MDC will look to its supporters as if it has failed in the one thing it promised them … the chance of a better life.

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