- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

HARARE, Zimbabwe | President Robert Mugabe swore in his longtime rival as prime minister on Wednesday, loosening his nearly three-decade stranglehold on power and conceding that they must work together to rescue Zimbabwe from economic and humanitarian disaster.

The image of Mr. Mugabe administering the oath of office to Morgan Tsvangirai was extraordinary, given the history of state-sponsored violence against opponents. The opposition leader has been beaten and was once nearly thrown from a 10th-floor window by people suspected to be government thugs.

Mr. Tsvangirai acknowledged in a speech after the ceremony that many Zimbabweans don’t think the partnership will work, but he said it is the “only viable arrangement.” He promised to begin repairing the economy and healing the country’s other wounds.

Government has been gridlocked since March elections left the presidency in dispute and broke the long-ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front’s control of Parliament. As the political factions squabbled month after month, the once-vibrant farm economy sank deeper into calamity.

Many people have new hope now that the unity government is taking office, but they also worry about how serious Mr. Mugabe will be in sharing control after stubbornly holding on to every facet of power since independence from Britain in 1980.

Unusually for a state occasion, no military chiefs were at Wednesday’s ceremony. Generals in the past have said they would not salute Mr. Tsvangirai, a former labor leader who did not take part in the independence war that ousted a white-minority regime and swept Mr. Mugabe to power.

Eliphas Mukonoweshuro, an opposition leader who was to take the oath of minister of public service when the rest of the Cabinet is sworn in Friday, said he wasn’t concerned by the absence of the military chiefs. He said it was not a snub, but an effort “to reflect the new Zimbabwe.”

At a celebration rally attended by some 15,000 supporters later in the day, Mr. Tsvangirai pledged to reopen schools that are closed because teachers can’t afford bus fare and to fight a cholera epidemic blamed on the cash-strapped government’s neglect of hospitals and sanitation.

He drew the biggest cheers when he said all government workers - from teachers to soldiers - would be paid in hard currency starting next month to shield them from the world’s highest inflation rate. He did not say how the government could afford such a change.

People in the crowd threw Zimbabwe dollars like confetti, expressing their contempt for the nearly worthless currency.

The country’s economic collapse - for which Mr. Tsvangirai holds Mr. Mugabe responsible - has left millions of Zimbabwean dependent on international food aid.

Mr. Mugabe declared during the ceremony that he is offering “my hand of friendship and solidarity to work with [Mr. Tsvangirai’s party] for the service of Zimbabwe.”

“The road to this arrangement has not been easy,” the president said later. “It has been a long and tedious road. But we hope and trust that we have put ourselves to a commitment of making this country work again.”

Leaders of neighboring nations pushed for the governing coalition, saying that once Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai joined in a unity administration, they could overcome mutual mistrust and work together for the good of Zimbabwe.

Mr. Mugabe, whose 85th birthday is Feb. 21, has in the recent past treated Mr. Tsvangirai, 56, as a junior partner at best.

Mr. Tsvangirai won the most votes in the first round of the presidential election last March but withdrew from a June runoff with Mr. Mugabe because of widespread attacks on his supporters. The unity government’s agenda includes preparing for new elections, expected in a year or two.

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