Year-end news conference shows Zimbabwe leaders getting along, but no breakthroughs announced

By Chengetai Zvauya, AP
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Zimbabwe rivals getting along, but no breakthrough

HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe and his rival-turned-premier held a collegial end-of-year press conference Wednesday, but announced no resolution of issues that have undermined their partnership.

Earlier this week, aides announced that agreements on commissions to oversee human rights, the media and elections had been reached during a meeting of Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, leader of a party closely allied with Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. That had raised hopes of further progress Wednesday.

The three joked and laughed at a news conference following their meeting Wednesday, in sharp contrast to their years of sometimes deadly rivalry.

The improvement in atmosphere is encouraging, but remaining disagreements are among the stickiest — over the appointment of provincial governors, the central bank chief and attorney general; charges from Tsvangirai’s party that Mugabe supporters continue to abuse human rights; and charges from Mugabe’s party that Tsvangirai’s group has done too little to persuade the international community to lift sanctions against Mugabe and his top loyalists.

Wednesday, the leaders said they were determined to clear outstanding issues before the new year. No new meeting of the top leaders was set, but they indicated their aides would be meeting.

“The three of us have agreed that we must finish the inclusive government issues quickly,” Mugabe said, adding he had signed off on Monday on several ambassadorial appointments made in consultation with his coalition partners.

He said Zimbabwe’s economy was improving, a sign “that the inclusive government is working.”

Mugabe said that after years of antagonism, some had questioned whether the coalition partners could work together.

“Now we are drinking, talking, laughing together,” he said.

Tsvangirai, who earlier this year became so frustrated he temporarily withdrew from the coalition, said Wednesday he was optimistic the remaining problems would be resolved before the new year. He added he and Mugabe could turn to Zimbabwe’s neighbors for negotiating help if they did not succeed.

South African and other regional leaders had pushed for the coalition, formed in February, following a series of inconclusive elections marred by violence blamed on Mugabe’s loyalists.

Tsvangirai ended his three-week boycott of the coalition after receiving assurances that South African President Jacob Zuma would intervene.

Tsvangirai has said that Zuma’s predecessor took too soft a line on Mugabe. Thabo Mbeki, now replaced by Zuma as regional point man on Zimbabwe, had argued that pushing Mugabe too hard could backfire.

In what was seen as a sign of stepped-up intervention, Zuma appointed two advisers and a special Zimbabwe envoy in November to work with politicians in Zimbabwe. But Zuma has not publicly taken a harder line on Mugabe than did Mbeki.

Also this week, Nestle said it had suspended operations in Zimbabwe because of pressure to buy milk from certain suppliers that was so great it feared for employees’ safety.

In a press Monday, Nestle did not identify the suppliers. But earlier this year, there were reports that the government froze the company’s accounts and ordered an audit after the company stopped buying milk from a farm owned by Mugabe’s wife. Nestle announced Oct. 1 it would no longer buy milk from the Mugabe farm following worldwide boycott threats.

Nestle spokesman Ravi Pillay would not comment when asked Wednesday whether the “non-contracted suppliers” were linked to Grace Mugabe.

In its statement, Nestle referred to its Oct. 1 announcement and said it has “faced pressure to purchase and process fresh milk from some non-contracted suppliers. This pressure has mounted to levels which do no longer guarantee normal operations and the safety of employees. Therefore Nestle has decided to temporarily shut down the factory.”

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