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Zimbabwe: A nation with little to celebrate

Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, left, and President Robert Mugabe


A year after a historic coalition government was formed, most Zimbabweans are in no mood to celebrate today's anniversary. Civil servants are on strike, reforms are stalled, farmers are under attack, and the autocratic Robert Mugabe still controls most of the levers of power.

The coalition, which allowed opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai to become the Prime Minister, has staggered through a rough year. The economy has improved, but the government is paralyzed by internal feuding and fierce resistance from Mr. Mugabe's allies. And it faces the risk of collapse if the squabbling persists and foreign donors remain unwilling to help.

Mr. Mugabe, still President at the age of 85, is showing no signs of surrendering power. He has stubbornly blocked the political reforms that were supposed to flow from a breakthrough 2008 agreement between the opposition and the ruling ZANU-PF party.

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That agreement, which led to the coalition government that was sworn in a year ago, is now "becoming a joke," according to Eddie Cross, a senior member of Mr. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change.

Only 12 per cent of the agreement has been put into effect, Mr. Cross estimates. A top MDC leader, Roy Bennett, is still being prosecuted on charges widely believed to be trumped up. Many other MDC members have been arrested or harassed. Deadlines for reform have been repeatedly ignored, and commercial farmers are still losing their farms to invading thugs.

Mr. Mugabe and his supporters are increasingly hardline, refusing any concessions unless Mr. Tsvangirai persuades foreign governments to lift targeted sanctions that prevent Mr. Mugabe and his cronies from travelling to Europe or North America. Meanwhile, all negotiations are deadlocked.

Mr. Mugabe has "made a complete fool" of the regional leaders who brokered the coalition deal, Mr. Cross said on his website. "While they fiddle - Zimbabwe burns. No progress with health and education or economic recovery and investment. No reduction in political violence and human rights violations. No change in the media and the daily outpouring of propaganda."

He compares Mr. Mugabe to a wounded bull, still dangerous to its pursuers. The MDC is willing to finish the fight, but this might leave it fatally wounded, too, he says. "The region will have to decide whether to leave the old bull to die on its own and simply let Zimbabwe slide back into chaos ... . We could be back at square one."

The only area of definite progress is the economy. By abolishing the Zimbabwe dollar, the government halted the hyperinflation that was devastating the country. Food shortages have eased, shop shelves are stocked again, salaries are being paid, and the economy grew by an estimated 4.7 per cent last year - the first growth in a decade, after a catastrophic 60-per-cent decline.

But much of last year's growth was due to good rains and a decent harvest. This year the rains have been sporadic, crops are failing and a poor harvest is expected. By the end of 2010, as many as three million Zimbabweans could again be dependent on food aid. Zimbabwe still needs an estimated $10-billion (U.S.) to reconstruct its economy, yet donors are reluctant to help unless Mr. Mugabe relinquishes power.

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Jim MacKinnon, the Southern Africa manager for Oxfam Canada, agrees that the Zimbabwe situation is gloomy, but he argues that it is still "eons" better than it was at the end of 2008, when schools and hospitals were closed for lack of money. He notes that Zimbabwe has avoided a repetition of the cholera epidemic that killed thousands of people in 2008.

Mr. MacKinnon is lobbying the Canadian government to begin restoring some of the aid that was terminated after Mr. Mugabe's crackdown on his political enemies. Without some kind of additional foreign aid - perhaps loans from financial institutions, or support for civil society groups, or salaries for public employees - there is a risk that the coalition government could fall apart, he warned.

"The international community should be a lot more engaged," Mr. MacKinnon said. "They're still in a wait-and-see mode. If they don't engage, this government will fail. It's a hard pill for the international community to swallow, but there's a bigger chance of the government falling apart if we just sit back and watch."

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Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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