Think Barack Obama’s got it bad? Sure, inheriting a pair of wars, a collapsing economy and a dysfunctionally partisan Congress is a drag. But for sheer job misery, I think Tendai Biti has him beat.
Biti is one of the founders of Zimbabwe’s opposition MDC. He’s been a major thorn in the side of Robert Mugabe’s government and, as recently as last Thursday, was on trial for treason for his alleged role in attempting to overthrow Mugabe’s government and rig last year’s elections. These charges made it significantly more difficult for Biti to act as MDC’s negotiator in talks to form a unity government. And when he called Mugabe a dictator last week – after the charges against him were suspended – it’s unlikely he made any new friends in ZANU-PF.
Biti has been named Finance Minister in the new transition government, taking on perhaps the most miserable job in the world. Zimbabwe faces 90% unemployment and astronomical inflation. His main “partner” is Gideon Gono, a Mugabe crony and governor of the central bank. Gono is best known for his war on zeros – perhaps believing the number to be cursed, he’s slashed 25 zeros from the currency in the past couple of years.
Gono’s “Zero to Hero” campaign, several devaluations ago.
(Let me save you the websearch: 1 with 25 zeros – 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 – is ten septillion. I understand that Gono is a big fan of Google and is just hoping he can cut a hundred zeroes off the currency in tribute. (Ah, math jokes.))
Biti has explicitly blamed Gono for Zimbabwe’s fiscal crisis, and has called for his ouster. This is likely to represent one of the first confrontations in the “unity government”, a compromise that neither side seems especially excited about, but which has to be marginally preferable to seven months of political violence and increasing misery for the population.
Actually, no one seems all that sure about this recent, dramatic development. The heads of state that came to Zimbabwe to celebrate the agreement – Thabo Mbeki, the remarkably non-neutral negotiator, the King of Swaziland and the president of Mozambique – are not exactly international luminaries. Almost everyone else is sounding cautious notes – the US and the European Union have both made it clear that they’re sitting on their hands until there’s an indication that Zimbabwe is actually changing.
Zimbabwean blogger Denford Magora points out that one change he could believe in would be the release of Jestina Mukoko and other MDC activists. Magora reports that Mukoko may be near death due to chronic illness that’s gone untreated during her time in prison, and worries that Tsvangarai may have given up what little leverage he had in joining the government without gaining concessions. And he’s dismayed that the military chiefs would not attend Tsvangarai’s swearing in as Prime Minister, and wonders if the MDC leader can possibly be “protected” by forces whose leaders are sworn to oppose him.
Other Zimbabwe bloggers seem to span the range between outraged and confused. In that sense, they may be aligned with much of the global community. On the one hand, the standoff between ZANU-PF and MDC has helped no ordinary Zimbabweans. On the other hand, if MDC is absorbed into ZANU-PF with no real change occuring, it may augur even worse tragedies.
Zimbabwe needs the rest of the world to lend a hand if its to feed its people, provide clean water and start to rebuild industry and infrastructure. But the rest of the world is likely to keep a safe distance until it’s clear that Tsvangarai, Biti and others will actually be allowed to govern. Here’s hoping the compromise is just that – a compromise, not a co-opting or cop-out.
Jan Raath and Martin Fletcher of the Times of London have a very helpful piece on Tsvangarai’s decision to visit Chikurubi maximum security prison so he could report on the conditions faced by the 16 activists when he meets with South African leaders. This was a clear defiance of Mugabe, who’s continued to imprison the activists despite agreements made in the power-sharing negotiation that they should be released. The authors see Tsvangarai testing his power to see whether ZANU-PF is at all serious about sharing power in this new arrangement.