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.