There’s a lot that’s hard to understand about Zimbabwean politics. This is true, in part, because the coverage tends to focus on the old crocodile – Robert Mugabe – rather than on the other ZANU-PF powerbrokers who may actually be in control. Morgan Tsvangirai, joining a power-sharing government, told the Guardian’s Chris McGreal that the world needed to “get over” Mugabe as a person and focus on the larger issues affecting the nation. (Perhaps someone should tell the Times of London – this piece from Hugo Rifkind is pretty funny, but isn’t exactly the most sophisticated piece of political analysis I’ve ever seen.)
It’s possible to read Tsvangirai’s suggestion as (accurate) media criticism, or as a sign that Mugabe’s not the real problem. Alex Duval Smith, also writing in the Guardian, argues that the Joint Operations Command – the chiefs of the army, air force, police, prisons and intelligence services – are really running the show. The theory being offered by some Zimbabwe watchers is that the JOC is even more resistant to Tsvangirai and the MDC being involved in Zimbabwe’s government than Robert Mugabe, and that machinations behind the scenes may be attempting to scuttle a power-sharing government early on.
It was hard, though possible, to understand why Tsvangirai would join Mugabe’s government without apparent concessions like the release of political prisoners, including Jestina Mukoko. Tsvangirai may have calculated that joining the government would allow international aid to reach the country, and that without international aid, the nation might collapse entirely. Or something else may be going on that I know nothing about…
But I’ve been having trouble figuring out why the police would arrest Roy Bennett. Bennett is a controversial figure – he’s the treasurer of the MDC, and an extremely vocal critic of Mugabe and ZANU-PF. As a white farmer, he’s an extremely symbolic figure in Zimbabwean politics. When his successful coffee farm was seized in 2004, he attacked fellow MPs on the floor of parliament and was arrested and imprisoned for several months. Accused of participating in a plot to overthrow Mugabe’s government, he fled to South Africa, where he’s lived in exile until last week.
Bennett was invited to join the power-sharing government as deputy agriculture minister, and came back into Zimbabwe. He was arrested Friday afternoon in Harare and taken to a prison in eastern Zimbabwe, where he was initially charged with treason. The treason charges were dropped, and he’s now charged with the three-year old charges of financing terrorism, the charges that led him into exile. My friends at Sokwanele describe these charges as “a fishing expedition”, and are demanding his immediate and unconditional release. American political strategist Joe Trippi has been calling a great deal of attention to Bennett’s case around the world, naming the individuals at Mutare Prison responsible for his safety, in the hopes of keeping Bennett safe from abuse or torture.
I’m baffled by the decision to arrest Bennett. Yes, he was a provocative choice for a ministerial position, a test by MDC to see whether ZANU-PF was serious about cooperating. His arrest seems to suggest that ZANU-PF isn’t serious, and is testing to see what would be required to get Tsvangirai to walk away from the partnership. If we could know more about the machinations behind the scenes, we might discover other factors at play – the Zimbabwe Times speculates that there may be pressure coming from politicians who seized Bennett’s farm with government cooperation, and are now worried that Bennett will be able to take his property back.
Why’s Bennett in jail? It’s hard to know for sure. But no one will take “the new Zimbabwe” seriously as long as he remains in prison.
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The situation in Zim reminds me a lot of the situation in Guinea, in the waning years of the ailing Lansana Conté. There was a widespread belief that Conté’s cronies, not the old general himself, were really running the country. Or rather, letting the country disintegrate while filling their pockets. Conté was humiliated by having a prime minister (Lansana Kouyaté) imposed on him. But then Conté’s cronies did everything they could to obstruct the prime minister from making much needed reforms that might affect their (the cronies) privileged positions and this was used as a justification for the prime minister’s eventual sacking. Honestly, I would be shocked if a similar situation didn’t play out in Zim.
I don’t think Mugabe is as detached as Conté, unless he’s mentally ill as some speculate. And given Mugabe’s historical personality and actions, there’s nothing to suggest that such intransigence is an aberration. But Tsvangarai is right to point that the problem is not Mugabe alone and the solution requires dealing with more than just him. I also think the prime minister is clever in saying, let’s pretend Mugabe is nothing more than a figure head and do what needs to be done. Being treated as irrelevant is a harder blow to the ego of someone like Mugabe, but also harder for him to combat… without overt repression.
Frankly, I think Bennett was arrested right before the government’s swearing in as a ploy to try to get the Tsvangarai and co. to withdraw from the government so that Mugabe and his cronies can blame the MDC for “obstructing progress” or whatever Orwellian phrase they would come up with. Except the MDC didn’t take the bait.