Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe swore in his longtime rival Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister yesterday, ushering in a unity government in an extraordinary concession after nearly three decades of virtually unchallenged rule.
There had been pressure for Mugabe, who remains president in the coalition, to step down altogether and questions remain about whether the partnership can work.
While Mugabe recently declared “Zimbabwe is mine,” he went further yesterday than many would have expected. He stood to face Tsvangirai as an equal in a white tent on the grounds of the presidential palace.
Regional leaders watched from the tent and Zimbabweans across the country watched on state TV as Tsvangirai raised his right hand and declared: “I will well and truly serve Zimbabwe in the office of prime minister of the Republic of Zimbabwe, so help me God.”
Both Tsvangirai and Mugabe were relaxed and smiling during the brief ceremony, which also included the swearing-in of Tsvangirai’s deputies, Arthur Mutambara of a breakaway opposition party and Thokozani Khupe of Tsvangirai’s party.
Together, Tsvangirai and Mugabe will be under pressure to act quickly to alleviate the suffering of impoverished Zimbabweans. The country’s economic collapse — for which Tsvangirai holds Mugabe responsible — has led to the world’s highest inflation rate, left millions of Zimbabweans dependent on international food aid and caused a cholera outbreak that has killed some 3,400 people since August.
Neighboring leaders who pushed for the coalition say once they join in the unity government, the two men will overcome mutual mistrust and work together for the good of their country.
Mugabe, who turns 85 on Feb. 21 and has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980, had in the recent past treated the 56-year-old Tsvangirai as a junior partner at best, often not bothering to hide his contempt.
But Tsvangirai won the most votes in the first round of the presidential election held almost a year ago, and withdrew from a June runoff only because of attacks on his supporters.
Tsvangirai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), also broke ZANU-PF’s lock on parliament for the first time since independence in the elections last March.
The two men have clashed repeatedly since the decade-old MDC emerged as the most serious threat to the ruling regime since independence.
Tsvangirai has been beaten and jailed by Mugabe’s security forces. In 2007, police attacked him after he held an opposition meeting the government had banned. Images shown on news broadcasts around the world of his bruised and bloodied face came to symbolize the challenges his movement faced.
The coalition agreement calls for the government to make its priority reviving an economy the opposition accuses Mugabe of destroying through corruption and mismanagement.
Even if the factions can put aside their own differences, they can’t do much without foreign help. The world’s main donor, the US, has made clear the money won’t flow if Mugabe tries to sideline Tsvangirai.
The challenges facing Zimbabwe would daunt even the best administration.
More than half the population needs emergency food aid. Unemployment is at 94 percent. Only 20 percent of children go to school because teachers haven’t been paid.
Public hospitals are closed, with doctors and nurses unpaid, exacerbating a health crisis in a nation where 1.3 million people have HIV and cholera has hit nearly 70,000.