An African Union summit opening in Addis Ababa today is expected to endorse the unity government that will now be formed in Zimbabwe. But many, including some of the country's main aid donors, question whether the forced partnership of President Robert Mugabe and his main opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, can ease the plight of millions of Zimbabweans facing starvation and disease.
After a political stalemate lasting nearly five months – during which a cholera outbreak has claimed over 3,000 lives and the number of people dependent on food aid more than doubled to seven million – Mr Tsvangirai, leader of Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), will be sworn in as Prime Minister on 11 February. Regional mediators, led by South Africa, pushed him into agreeing to serve under Mr Mugabe, even though a dispute over cabinet posts remains unresolved.
A power-sharing agreement signed on 15 September has remained in abeyance, mainly because the MDC accused the ruling Zanu-PF party of reneging on a deal that the opposition should run the Home Ministry, which controls the police. Mr Tsvangirai rejected a proposal by mediators that the two parties should hold the ministry alternately, but has now agreed to take office before the dispute is settled. There was jubilation as he announced his decision on Friday to a large crowd in the centre of Harare, but the MDC leader has to overcome visceral suspicion of Mr Mugabe within his own party as well as abroad.
A US State Department spokesman, Robert Wood, said after the deal was announced that Washington remained "a bit sceptical", adding: "These types of things have been announced before. The key is always implementation. The jury is still out."
Zimbabweans remember that Zanu, the only other party to mount significant opposition to Mr Mugabe during his 28 years in power, was forcibly merged into Zanu-PF after 20,000 of its supporters were massacred in the early 1980s. The present deal follows months of turmoil after the MDC unexpectedly won elections last March. Mr Tsvangirai was ahead in the first round of the presidential election, but following a wave of violence in which 200 people were killed, he pulled out of the second round to spare his supporters further intimidation.
The relief shown on the streets of Harare is a measure of the desperation felt by Zimbabweans at the lack of any effective government for almost a year, and some critics believe the MDC leader deserves a share of the blame. "I believe going into the inclusive government deal is the only solution, and has been the only solution for a long time," said one, adding that Mr Tsvangirai "should have got his foot in the door immediately after 15 September, and then used his muscle to start changing things from inside. Had he done so, he would have avoided 30 people being abducted and tortured, the cholera epidemic taking hold and the economic situation deteriorating so dramatically. What has he achieved by delaying this decision?"
Even if the government begins functioning and aid starts to flow again, the plight of millions of Zimbabweans is likely to worsen in the short term. February and March are traditionally the hungriest months, because the maize crop does not ripen until April and food stocks from the previous harvest are beginning to run out. But drought, economic collapse and administrative chaos meant large areas of the country had nothing to eat even before last year's planting season began. Flooding during the annual rains is also likely to worsen the cholera epidemic, which has already infected at least 60,000 people.
A quarter of Zimbabwe's population of about 12 million has left, mainly for South Africa, in search of food and work, and 94 per cent of those left behind are unemployed. Last week the UN World Food Programme said more than seven million people needed emergency food aid, but it did not have enough to go round. An adult is estimated to need 12kg of grain a month to survive, but the WFP, which had already cut the monthly ration to 10kg, is being forced to halve it to 5kg in February. Even some of the most desperate cases will get nothing.
An aid worker reported that, at one community food distribution, three old men were so close to death from hunger that a nursing mother had to give them breast milk "to survive for the next few hours". It is not known whether they are still alive.
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