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Authorities Pose Obstacles at Critical Phase of Zimbabwe Negotiating Process

Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai missed his flight to Johannesburg Thursday as he attempted hold consultations with African leaders on forming a new government. Zimbabwe authorities briefly seized Tsvangirai’s passport at Harare International Airport and withheld it just long enough so that he and aides Tendai Biti and Eliphas Mukonoweshuro could not fly to South Africa for the day. They were trying to catch up with members of the Southern African Development Community(SADC), who are preparing for an important meeting on Saturday with South African President Thabo Mbeki. In Johannesburg, the SADC leaders will be briefed by Mbeki, who also serves as Zimbabwe chief mediator, on outstanding issues needed to resolve the crisis and strike a power-sharing deal between the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the ruling ZANU-PF party to achieve a government of national unity. Handel Mlilo is the MDC’s chief representative in Washington. He explains what types of guarantees Mr. Tsvangirai might be searching for before agreeing to enter into a ruling partnership with veteran President Robert Mugabe.

“When you have a government of national unity and it is a meaningful one, what you really need to be doing is to be making sure that all services, including security and military, are reflecting the fact that you now have a unity government and that they’re not favoring one party over another. Otherwise, there’s no point in having an agreement,” he pointed out.

The regional-backed negotiations were necessitated by two controversial rounds of presidential voting between Mugabe and Tsvangirai that failed to give the aging incumbent a clear mandate for serving another 6-year term. Morgan Tsvangirai won a March 29 presidential contest, but authorities ruled he did not capture a majority of the vote. President Mugabe declared victory after running unopposed in June when his MDC rival boycotted the vote to protest a wave of violent attacks on MDC supporters.

While power-sharing negotiations have taken place behind closed doors, reports have circulated that the 84-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, would retain his title as President, with Tsvangirai acquiring the Prime Minister’s job with a delineated set of executive responsibilities. Just where those duties lie and how powerful Tsvangirai, the winner of an unresolved first round of March presidential voting, can become remain unclear. One possible sticking point that has been mentioned is who would be in charge of the military. The MDC’s Handel Mlilo suggests that guarantees are essential to secure any agreement on control of the military, but that they entail a much broader range of services and responsibilities as well.

“There have to be guarantees about a whole host of things, including the military and everybody else. And security in all other institutions are going to behave. And we are going to make sure that whatever arrangement is made is reflecting on the fact that we need to move forward and not move backwards like you saw happening in passports being withheld and people being told they cannot go to meetings,” he noted in a reference to Thursday’s restriction of MDC travel.

On Zimbabwe’s food security crisis, Mlilo accused President Mugabe of using a political weapon against the people of Zimbabwe. He also dismissed reports from earlier in the week that in Mr. Tsvangirai’s absence, the head of a breakaway MDC wing, Arthur Mutambara, had agreed with President Mugabe on terms for a future government. Mutambara has denied he would sign any deal without receiving approval from Mr. Tsvangirai, who left the talks on Tuesday in order to seek guidance from concerned diplomats. Handel Mlilo says he suspects President Mugabe is growing impatient with the negotiating process.

“It is distinctly possible that ZANU-PF is trying to plant a seed of discord among the parties. But Arthur Mutambara, from what I understand, denied that there has been any agreement worked out with Mugabe, that is separate from another agreement. And at any rate, if they try to make an arrangement without Tsvangirai, it wouldn’t go anywhere because the people of Zimbabwe would like to see the Movement for Democratic Change in a situation of control from now on. So they can go ahead and make whatever arrangements they want to make. They will be meaningless, totally,” he said.

MDC representative Mlilo said that the violence that has resulted in countless injuries and the deaths of 163 opposition figures has to stop before a well-meaning government can be set up to win back the trust of the people.