Zimbabwe, “has gone through a very dark and difficult period politically,” Obama said after their meeting. “I congratulate him. Overall, in a very difficult circumstance, we’ve seen progress from the prime minister.”
Zimbabwe is still dark and difficult. Election turbulence and international attention have passed while leaving the root conflict intact. Tsvangirai is an easy choice over president and resident dictator Robert Mugabe, but beyond diplomatic support, how can America help revive Zimbabwe?
President Obama slipped a $73 million check in Tsvangirai’s pocket and wished him luck. 5,000 miles away in a dark, smokey room in Harare, Mugabe cracked a smile. He knows Tsvangirai needs a lot more than that.
A popular wave led by Tsvangirai’s party, the MDC, failed to dislodge Mugabe in the 2008 election and Zimbabwe crashed hard after years in a death spiral. Few states can sustain two fraudulent elections, a political crackdown that injured thousands, hyperinflation, 80% unemployment, 6 out of 12 million in need of food, and a cholera epidemic.
Tsvangirai is mending some areas since became prime minister in February, like inflation, food shortages, and infection, but Zimbabwe remains in a deep hole.
Tsvangirai repeatedly stated that Zimbabwe has no time frame. So much dirt was piled onto it that years will be necessary to excavate, and there’s no guarantee Mugabe will let him. Tsvangirai needs every last drop of help or he will fail. $73 million must be the tip of American assistance - if it reaches the right people, a big if.
Unfortunately, precise details of Zimbabwe’s status are fleeting. Past and current unrest has distorted or rendered obsolete much of its economic and social statistics. Tsvangirai recently sent his own mixed messages, but not enough to disguise reality.
Last week he told reporters that progress is, “being undermined by those that are threatened by the democratic changes contained in the global political agreement. Our state media remains partisan and prejudiced, freedom of association is not yet a right that all can enjoy. Our members continue to be the victims of political persecution... Those in government will tell you this government is walking on a thin thread.”
For whatever reason Tsvangirai was more optimistic while in Washington, telling David Frost in an interview, “There is no evidence that there is a general campaign of intimidation and violence in the country.” A few days earlier he claimed that the “period of acrimony” with Mugabe, who tried to kill him three times, is “over.”
But one minister in Tsvangirai’s party told the BBC that Mugabe’s circle is drawing up assassination lists she believes will be used in future elections.
“No-one feels safe in Zimbabwe,” Sekai Holland, Minister of the State in the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, said. “No-one - and I mean no-one. We haven't reached a ceasefire. We are still at a point where people have their guns cocked.”
It’s plausible that Tsvangirai adopted a less confrontational stance while in America, lest he give the impression of colluding with the West to neutralize Mugabe, but isn’t that what he really needs?
Tsvangirai's position is proof enough of his progress, in addition to mild political and economic improvements. Two years ago he was arrested before a rally and tortured by the Special Forces. Zimbabwe is better off now than it was and no one can expect it to spring to life again so soon after death.
At the same time, Zimbabwe cannot heal completely while Mugabe controls the army, media, and courts. Rumored to support a private militia, Mugabe will always be an obstacle for Tsvangirai and his supporters because they’re a threat, and threats are only forgotten when eliminated. The MDC is warning that the next election could be as violent as the last. If Tsvangirai’s strategy is to bide his time until then, Mugabe’s henchmen have sniffed it out.
Tsvangirai’s leadership and perseverance is admirable and he has the intellect to restore Zimbabwe if given the chance, but he will never get that opportunity with Mugabe’s amount of control. Zimbabwe is a zero-sum game. An increase in Tsvangirai’s power must come at the sake of Mugabe’s, who won’t give it freely.
What hope does Zimbabwe have? Humanitarian aid is necessary for suffering Zimbabweans, but it’s a band-aid, not the surgery that Zimbabwe requires. Foreign pressure from African states and the West failed to subdue Mugabe during the election, and another election could prove equally futile. Supporting Tsvangirai too much could trigger Mugabe's fear of the West.
That shouldn’t stop America and other countries from trying to help, but Zimbabwe needs some Voodoo.
Barring an invasion or coup, Tsvangirai is stuck with Mugabe for the foreseeable future. Power-sharing has left him a slice, better than nothing though not by much. Mugabe will continue to block Tsvangirai where he can and consolidate his power for future challenges.
Zimbabwe can’t rise from its grave as long as Mugabe sits on top of it.