- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2009

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Zimbabwe’s main opposition is headed into a unity government within weeks, bowing Friday to pressure to conclude a deal with a president it considers a brutal dictator so a spiraling humanitarian crisis can be tackled.

The U.N., meanwhile, reported that Zimbabwe has suffered more than 60,000 cholera cases since August, surpassing what experts had said would be a worst-case scenario. The Red Cross and World Health Organization warned the disease could become prevalent throughout the country and claim thousands of lives each year.

As those figures emerged, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was meeting in the Zimbabwean capital with aides to discuss a recommendation from regional leaders that a coalition agreement stalled since September finally be implemented.

“We have decided to abide” by the regional leaders’ resolution, Tsvangirai told reporters after his meeting. “We are committed to joining the government of national unity and hope that (President Robert Mugabe’s party officials) are going to treat us as equal partners.”

He added: “Let us make no mistake, by joining an inclusive government, we are not saying that this is a solution to the Zimbabwe crisis, instead our participation signifies that we have chosen to continue the struggle for a democratic Zimbabwe in a new arena.”

A Tsvangirai-Mugabe political marriage will be rocky.

The two have clashed repeatedly over the years, and Tsvangirai has been beaten and jailed by Mugabe’s regime. In 2007, police attacked him after he held an opposition meeting the government had banned. Images shown on news broadcasts around the world of Tsvangirai’s bruised and bloodied face came to symbolize the challenges his movement faced.

Some of Tsvangirai’s allies say he never should have agreed to serve as prime minister in a government that left Mugabe as president. Mugabe, meanwhile, was under pressure from aides in the military and government who don’t want to give up power and prestige to the opposition.

Preparing for new elections is among the main tasks of the unity government. Tsvangirai won the most votes in a presidential race almost a year ago, then withdrew from a runoff against Mugabe because of state-sponsored violence against opposition supporters.

The opposition had earlier insisted there would be no coalition until a dispute over how to fairly share Cabinet and other posts was resolved after Mugabe insisted on keeping the most powerful posts for his ZANU-PF party. The opposition also had wanted attacks on dissidents to stop.

Mugabe’s party and leaders of neighboring countries have said the opposition should first enter the government, then resolve outstanding issues. With Friday’s decision, the opposition adopted that strategy.

After an all-night summit, the main regional grouping on Tuesday had called on Zimbabwe’s factions to swear in a prime minister, the post Tsvangirai is to hold in the unity government, on Feb. 11. Mugabe, in power in the southern African country since its independence from Britain in 1980, was to remain president.

The opposition faced the threat Mugabe would take the regional leaders’ recommendation as license to simply form a government without Tsvangirai and the pressure from neighboring countries. Neither may have weighed as heavily as a sense that their country was in urgent need of a political solution so it could address a growing humanitarian crisis. Mugabe is accused of presiding over his country’s economic collapse.

“Now is the time for us to put aside our political differences, to prioritize the welfare of the people in both our policies and our actions and to focus on stabilization, development, progress and democratization,” Tsvangirai said Friday.

Mugabe had faced sharp criticism from the West. But, for the most part, African leaders have stood by one of their own.

Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, long one of the few African leaders to criticize Mugabe, repeated calls on him to step down Friday. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who joined Odinga on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, said Mugabe could come to Senegal if he did go.

Instead, Friday’s opposition decision means Mugabe will cling to his post, albeit with curtailed powers.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters Friday that the United States is “a bit skeptical” because Mugabe has shown no previous willingness to share power.

“These types of things have been announced before, and the key is always implementation.” Wood said. “What’s important here is actions and not words, and we want to see real, serious power-sharing by the Mugabe regime.

Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, meanwhile, said African leaders erred last year by failing to support their own observers who ruled that initial elections in favor of Tsvangirai were free and fair, and the subsequent runoff was not.

“It was a missed opportunity to reaffirm democracy,” he said.

The United Nations said Friday that cholera has sickened 60,401 Zimbabweans and killed 3,161 since August. Experts had predicted the crisis would peak at 60,000, but Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the U.N. humanitarian affairs agency, said Friday: “Unfortunately, the outbreak is not under control yet.”

The collapse of Zimbabwe’s health and sanitation infrastructure under the weight of hyperinflation has made it difficult to contain cholera. Humanitarian groups also are battling a hunger crisis. The U.N. food program said Thursday that 7 million Zimbabweans — 80 percent of the population by some estimates — need food aid.

“We made the earlier prediction (of 60,000 cases) based on the assumption that half the population was at risk,” Dr. Dominique Legros, a cholera expert with the World Health Organization, told The Associated Press Friday. “We considered that the absolute worst-case scenario based on our experience in other countries.”

He added that with the number of infections still rising, making a prediction on when the crisis might be brought under control was very difficult.

Authorities say more than 3,100 Zimbabweans have died since the outbreak began in August, and what started in the slums of the capital, Harare, has now spread to rural areas where doctors and medicines are scarce and the chances of survival reduced.

Tammam Aloudat, a health emergencies expert with the International Federation of the Red Cross, said eventually the disease will run its course and subside for a time.

The question is how many will die before then, and whether the country will be able to cure its ailing health system to prevent another outbreak as bad or worse than the current one.

“The underlying conditions that help cholera to spread will not go away when this particular outbreak subsides,” Aloudat told the Associated Press.

Associated Press writers Frank Jordans in Geneva and Bradley S. Klapper in Davos contributed to this report.

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