Zimbabwe's New Finance Minister Comes To Washington To Plead Heart-Wrenching Case

By Tiseke Kasambala

Johannesburg -- Tendai Biti is not what you'd expect from a representative of the Zimbabwean government. Now the country's finance minister, he's a former human rights lawyer and dedicated opponent of President Robert Mugabe. As a member of the Movement for Democratic Change that won elections last year, Biti saw his political allies beaten, tortured, and even killed by the ruling party's henchmen until finally, reluctantly, Mugabe said he would share power.

Biti is the international face of Zimbabwe's new "inclusive government," and he came to Washington to plead a heart-wrenching case. More than half the population of his country is surviving on international food aid. Reports of cholera outbreaks abated after international agencies rushed in thousands of truckloads of potable water, but 4,000 people have already died of it and most public health experts expect the epidemic to rise again. There's no money to fix the country's collapsed water system. Schools are closed for lack of funds to pay teachers; hospitals and clinics are nearly empty of doctors, nurses, medicine, and equipment. Unemployment stands at more than 90 percent.

After years of being looted by Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, Zimbabwe is dead broke. Biti and his colleagues from neighboring countries in southern Africa have been visiting Washington and London in an effort to persuade Western governments to lift sanctions on ZANU-PF members in the government and ask international lenders to restore development aid. And because of who he is, over time, Biti has a chance of changing those lenders' minds.

We all can agree that people in Zimbabwe desperately need help. But the West must be very, very careful in how it gives it. Mugabe remains fully in charge and his loyalists run the key security ministries and the notorious Joint Operations Command, responsible for some of Zimbabwe's most gruesome human rights crimes. He has unilaterally increased the number of ministers to 43 in order to water down the opposition's influence, and many of the 29,000 "Green Bombers" who perpetrated so much violence during the election season last year are on the civil service payroll.

Human rights activists and opposition supporters are still regularly attacked, arrested, and prosecuted in a court system that obeys Mugabe's bidding. Mobs are still invading and taking over the properties of commercial farmers. The media are still not free. And all the while, Mugabe is going about unilaterally rewriting the terms of the power-sharing agreement -- and without any sanction from Zimbabwe's neighbors.

Western governments are already providing $900 million in humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe, through the United Nations and non-governmental relief agencies. This money is literally keeping the country alive. What Biti has come to request is development aid: direct, government-to-government support that will help fill the state coffers and, in theory at least, allow basic services to resume: schools, hospitals, public agencies of all kinds.

The problem is that the Finance Ministry does not control the country's central bank, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, whose governor, Gideon Gono, has funded the crudest forms of state repression. Gono admitted recently that he raided the accounts of foreign aid groups in order to pay government salaries and called on international lenders to "let bygones be bygones."

The signs are that the United States and the European Union are aware of the risks of rushing in too quickly. Mr Biti received a polite welcome in Washington DC this past week. But he was told that the donors have few problems with his plans and intentions, just his ability to deliver while the architects of Zimbabwe's misery retain control of the country's security forces, judicial system and central bank.

So, for now, the targeted travel restrictions and asset freezes on top officials of ZANU-PF will remain in place, and we are told by the United States government that any resumption of development aid will require dramatic improvement across a range of critical human rights indices: judicial reform, media freedoms, and prosecutions of those responsible for the most serious human rights atrocities. The US government and the Europeans should now explain to their taxpayers, who will have to fund any development aid for Zimbabwe, in more detail exactly what they propose to do and when.

The trick for now is for Zimbabwe's international donors to find creative ways of supporting Zimbabwe's ruined health and education systems without perpetuating Mugabe's reign of terror, abuse and corruption. That's where the conversation with Biti has started and where it must ultimately finish.

Tiseke Kasambala is Zimbabwe researcher for Human Rights Watch.