TOPICS > Politics

Zimbabwe Rivals Agree to Hold Power-Sharing Talks

July 21, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Zimbabwe's political crisis took a new turn Monday when President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai met for the first time in years to discuss building a power-sharing government. A regional expert discusses what the agreement may signal for the troubled country.
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GWEN IFILL: For the first time in a decade, President Robert Mugabe met face to face with his political nemesis, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. The two men shook hands as they signed an agreement mediators hope will lead to a power-sharing deal.

Zimbabwe has been plagued with violence and political unrest, and teeters at the brink of economic collapse. Is today’s agreement a turn of the page?

For that, we are joined by Briggs Bomba, associate director of Campaigns for Africa Action, a human rights advocacy group. He is a citizen of Zimbabwe.

Welcome.

BRIGGS BOMBA, Associate Director of Campaigns, Africa Action: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Today, both these gentlemen signed what is called a memorandum of understanding. What do we know about what is in it?

BRIGGS BOMBA: So, the point to note is that the political formations in Zimbabwe are coming from diametrically opposed positions.

We know that over the last seven years, President Mugabe has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the opposition in Zimbabwe, as pockets of the West, who he would not sit down and negotiate with.

And, at the same time, the opposition has also insisted that President Mugabe’s presidency is illegitimate. So, to have these political parties seated on the same table and their principals putting signatures to this memorandum of understanding I think is a significant step.

GWEN IFILL: Just the fact that they got to the table at all.

BRIGGS BOMBA: Just the fact that they got there and they put their signatures.

But when looked at within the broad context of ending the political crisis in Zimbabwe, this is just a single step in a journey that is likely to be 1,000 miles. The memorandum of understanding which you ask about is really a huge laundry list of agenda items.

GWEN IFILL: It’s got — it talks about sanctions, land, constitution, healing and free political activity. That’s a lot that they want to negotiate in two weeks?

BRIGGS BOMBA: Yes. So, all the parties are just throwing on to the table things that they think need to be discussed. The key challenge is going to be coming to agreement on those issues and implementing that agreement.

And the most difficult challenge is going to be agreeing on who holds the greatest power or the greatest authority in a government of national unity or in a transitional authority.

A power-sharing proposal

GWEN IFILL: I noticed in the document that there was no mention of Robert Mugabe as president of Zimbabwe, only as president of his own political party, the same thing for Tsvangirai.

BRIGGS BOMBA: Yes.

So, President Mugabe has actually stepped down very significantly to come to this particular memorandum of understanding. As you know, over the last years, he had refused, flatly, to negotiate with the opposition. So, now he's there. And, at the same time, the opposition insisted that this memorandum of understanding cannot be signed at the presidential palace, which, under normal circumstances, that's the way an agreement like this is signed.

He had to come out to a hotel in Harare five miles from his residence to sign this.

GWEN IFILL: Neutral.

BRIGGS BOMBA: A neutral ground.

GWEN IFILL: Neutral ground.

BRIGGS BOMBA: And he had to agree to sign this document, which does not acknowledge him as the president of Zimbabwe. So, he is showing that he is really, indeed, desperate to have a settlement with the opposition.

GWEN IFILL: So, what is the goal, to come up with some sort of power-sharing agreement on the model of what came out of Kenya, for instance, with Odinga and with Kibaki, in which one was president and one was vice president?

BRIGGS BOMBA: Very likely that is what is going to be proposed.

We know that President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has already made suggestions of an arrangement that is similar to what we saw Kenya, where President Mugabe remains as the ceremonial head of state, and Morgan Tsvangirai of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change comes in as prime minister.

So, this, I think, is what they seek to achieve with the negotiations. But they are going -- it's going to be a very difficult process, because they have to talk about those sanctions. They have to talk about land. They have to talk about legitimacy.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

BRIGGS BOMBA: This he have to talk about accountability, transformation. It's going to be a key challenge.

Zimbabwe on brink of explosion

So, two weeks is quite an ambitious time frame. But what I would say is both parties need this dialogue to work. President Mugabe sees that Zimbabwe is on the brink of a total explosion. Just recently, they introduced a hundred billion dollar note, which can only buy you a loaf of bread.

GWEN IFILL: Wow.

BRIGGS BOMBA: So, he knows that he risks rebellion even from the most loyal base of his supporters, the police, the army, if the economy collapses, not arrested.

GWEN IFILL: Did President Mbeki, who was the great facilitator, mediator in all of this, and came under some fire from people who thought he was too friendly with President Mugabe, did he have to come up with something today, too? Was this also reflecting on him?

BRIGGS BOMBA: He definitely responded to some of the calls that were coming from the opposition, and the dissatisfaction that was expressed by the opposition.

He invited last Friday the African Union and the United Nations to form a reference group that he will constantly consult with as this dialogue is proceeding. So, he is no longer handling the dialogue on his own. You now have the A.U. and the United Nations involved as well in this dialogue.

A sense of urgency in dialogue

GWEN IFILL: What is the difference between this dialogue and past dialogues? This is not the first time we have seen them look like that they were about to have a big conference.

BRIGGS BOMBA: Yes. The difference now I think is the time frame. When you look at the memorandum of understanding and the agenda items that are listed there, they are very much the same agenda items that were in the first round of the dialogue.

But, this time around, they have a time frame. They are saying within two weeks, and they have been saying as quickly as possible, they must come to an agreement. So, there is some sense of urgency that is associated with this dialogue. But it still remains to be seen, you know, what substantively is going to come out of those negotiations.

GWEN IFILL: Is the urgency economic, or is it political, or is it both?

BRIGGS BOMBA: Well, on President Mugabe's side, it's definitely economic. He sees the country unraveling.

So, without even an opposition party, you risk a rebellion, you risk an uprising from his own people. Then, on the side of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, it's political in a sense that they really do not have any alternative of breaking the political stalemate that does not involve Mugabe cooperation to some extent.

So, for President Mugabe, it is really to rehabilitate his power. He knows that if a spontaneous uprising is going to spring up some time down the line, he risks getting wiped out of the scene completely. So, this can actually be his way of remaining with something, giving some ground to the opposition, but also remaining with some power and authority.

GWEN IFILL: We will probably talk again about this in two weeks.

Briggs Bomba of Africa Action, thank you very much.

BRIGGS BOMBA: Thank you. Pleasure.