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ZIMBABWE: Tsvangirai Gets Obama’s Seal of Approval

Jim Lobe* and Katie Mattern

WASHINGTON, Jun 12 2009 (IPS) - Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai received U.S. President Barack Obama’s seal of approval and a promise of 73 million dollars in education, health, and governance-related assistance after a mid-afternoon meeting at the White House here Friday.

Emerging from the talks, Obama expressed “extraordinary admiration for the courage [and] the tenacity that the prime minister has shown in navigating through some difficult political times.”

At the same time, he indicated that Washington is not yet prepared to substantially ease nine-year-old sanctions directed primarily against Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, and his top military and political aides, with whom Tsvangirai has been engaged in an uneasy power-sharing agreement since February.

“I have committed 73 million dollars in assistance to Zimbabwe,” he said, adding, however, that none of that money will “be going to the government directly because we continue to be concerned about consolidating democracy, human rights and rule of law, but it will be going directly to the people in Zimbabwe.”

Despite its not being channeled through the government, he said, “I think (the aid) can be of assistance to the prime minister in his efforts.”

At the same time, Obama took a slap at Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron hand since its independence nearly 30 years ago.

“President Mugabe – I think I’ve made my views clear – has not acted all the time in the best interest of the Zimbabwean people and has been resistant to the kinds of democratic changes that need to take place,” he said, noting Tsvangirai had made “progress” in leading his country out of a “very dark and difficult period politically”.

Some Africa activists here had urged the Obama administration to ease existing sanctions against the coalition government in order both to strengthen the hand of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as it jockeys for power with Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) party and to ensure that greater and to provide greater relief to the country’s long-suffering population.

“Continuing with these sanctions is a sure way to doom the Inclusive Government and will only strengthen the hand of hardliners in Mugabe’s Zanu-PF who are working to undermine the Inclusive Government,” according to Gerald LeMelle, executive director of Africa Action.

Even Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, one of many Washington luminaries who gave Tsvangirai an exceptionally warm welcome this week, suggested that Washington should be more forthcoming during a meeting with the prime minister Thursday.

Noting that the new government had made “real progress in stabilising runaway inflation and trying to begin to create the conditions for democracy”, he said, “I believe that we should explore our options to increase assistance for reform. Failure to act now may squander this opportunity for change, and the greatest beneficiaries will be Robert Mugabe and the other architects of Zimbabwe’s destruction.”

Tsvangirai, whose visit to Washington was part of a three-week tour designed to rally support from western governments, has also warned that he needs to show tangible results for his efforts in order to bolster his position within the government and among an impoverished population whose per capita income is estimated to have fallen 10-fold over the past decade and which is currently suffering an unemployment rate of some 80 percent.

“We are moving into a new phase, and that’s what needs to be rewarded rather than punished,” he told the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Wednesday, stressing his hopes that donors would move from strictly humanitarian assistance to aid designed to spur economic recovery. “…Already, Zimbabwe is a different place, a significantly better place. As a society, we were near death, and we have come back to life.”

To date, Tsvangirai has succeeded in gaining modest commitments from several governments, including the U.S., to increase humanitarian aid channeled through non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The World Bank announced a 22-million-dollar grant this week, while Britain promised 24 million dollars, and Norway and the Netherlands somewhat smaller amounts.

But, with Mugabe still largely in control of the country’s security forces, donors have made clear they are unwilling to significantly boost assistance until major political and economic reforms are implemented and appear irreversible.

Indeed, even while Tsvangirai has been trying to reassure donors about the new government’s direction, Mugabe has appeared to make his mission more difficult. Just this week, he met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for whom the western-led International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity.

The United States first imposed sanctions in 2001 in response to serious human rights abuses committed by Mugabe-controlled security forces and Zanu-PF-backed militias. The sanctions, which were expanded over the years and also adopted by the European Union, have included the denial of visas and a freeze on western-based assets of Mugabe and dozens of his associates, and an arms embargo.

The latest round of sanctions were imposed in the wake of a campaign of violence and intimidation against civil society groups and MDC activists by the military, police and Zanu-PF militias during elections last spring in which the ruling part lost its majority in parliament for the first time in 28 years. As a result, Mugabe was forced to agree to a power-sharing deal last September.

After months of negotiations mediated by South Africa with the help of Zimbabwe’s other southern African neighbours, Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister in February 2009. But his relationship with Mugabe has been difficult, to say the least.

“If it was my wish, 10 to 20 years ago, President Mugabe would have retired from politics,” Tsvangirai said. “We have entered into an agreement with President Mugabe; let’s wait through until such time that the election process will be the only basis that the people of Zimbabwe will decide if he will have any role.”

As few as 10 years ago, Zimbabwe, a major tobacco and maize producer, was considered one of the most prosperous countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

But since then, in part due to a chaotic land-reform scheme designed to redistribute landholdings by mainly white farmers and reward ZANU-PF loyalists, the economy has tanked and is now one of the worst in the region. Per capita income has shrunk from more than 2,000 dollars in 2000 to around 200 dollars today, according to World Bank and U.N. statistics.

As a result, Zimbabweans have experienced extreme food and fuel shortages. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country, mostly to neighbouring South Africa and Zambia.

“Increasingly substantial aid is dependent upon them making political concessions and fulfilling the agreements that they have already made and in turning the country back towards more democratic rule,” said Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, earlier this week.

He said Washington hoped to work closely with South Africa’s new president, Jacob Zuma, to “push both sides (in Zimbabwe), but especially Mr. Mugabe,” to implement reforms, particularly in moving the country forward toward new elections with international monitors.

Obama himself said the current power-sharing agreement “shows promise, and we want to do everything we can to encourage the kinds of improvement not only on human rights and rule of law, freedom of the press and democracy that is so necessary, but also on the economic front.”

“We want to encourage him to continue to make progress,” Obama said, noting that hyperinflation had been brought under control and industrial capacity had improved in the four months since he was formally installed as prime minister.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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