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Zimbabwe's Tsvangirai, Now PM, Promises Action on Rights, Cholera, Economy

  • Thomas Chiripasi
  • Ntungamili Nkomo
  • Jonga Kandemiiri

A new chapter in Zimbabwean history was opened on Wednesday as Morgan Tsvangirai, long in opposition as founder of the Movement for Democratic Change, became prime minister of the country with the formation of a long-awaited national unity government due Friday.

Mr. Tsvangirai was sworn in by President Robert Mugabe, long his rival and now his partner - at least nominally - in a government most Zimbabeans hope will act with dispatch to reverse the economy's headlong downward spiral and most of all relieve the suffering of millions who face not only hunger but a cholera epidemic that is still spreading and claiming lives.

Soon after taking the oath of office at State House along with his deputies, Arthur Mutambara, head of a rival MDC formation, and Thokozane Khupe, deputy president of his own dominant MDC grouping, Mr. Tsvangirai addressed thousands of his supporters at Glamis Arena on the Harare Agricultural Show Grounds.

"For too long, our people’s hopes for a bright and prosperous future have been betrayed," he said. "Instead of hope, their days have been filled with starvation, disease and fear. A culture of entitlement and impunity has brought our nation to the brink of a dark abyss. This must end today," Mr. Tsvangirai declared.

"I will work to create a society where our values are stronger than the threat of violence, where our children’s future and happiness is more important than present political goals and where a person is free to express an opinion, loudly, openly and publicly without fear of reprisal or repression. A country where jobs are available for those who wish to work, food is available for those that are hungry and where we are united by our respect for the rights and dignity of our fellow citizens. This is the Zimbabwe that I am working towards," he said.

"Violent polarization" must stop, he said, obliquely referring to the turbulent period following the March 2008 elections when beatings, abductions and murders reached a crescendo in the approach to the June presidential run-off in which Mr. Mugabe was unopposed following Mr. Tsvangirai's withdrawal in protest over the violence against opposition members.

The new-minted prime minister promised to work to create a society where “our values are stronger than the threat of violence.”

Mr. Tsvangirai laid out his priorities: implement the MDC democracy agenda starting with the release of political prisoners from his party and civil society; tackle the humanitarian crisis, in particular the persistent cholera epidemic while ensuring universal access to sufficient food; and stabilize an economy that has crashed leaving the national currency valueless.

He promised that all civil servants - teachers, hospital workers, solders and policemen - will be paid in hard currency beginning next month. Mr. Tsvangirai gave no indication where his government would come up with sufficient foreign exchange to fulfill that pledge.

The Zimbabwean people "face many challenges but we are brave and resourceful," he said. "By uniting as a nation and a people we can succeed. If you match our efforts with your own, we will succeed, if you match our desires with your own, we will succeed, if you match our dreams for Zimbabwe with your own, we will succeed."

Harare correspondent Thomas Chiripasi of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe reported on the day's events from the swearing-in to Mr. Tsvangirai's inauguration speech.

For a reaction from the ZANU-PF side of the aisle, reporter Blessing Zulu turned to its chief parliamentary whip, Joram Gumbo, who said Wednesday developments were historic.

Amid the public euphoria, some in civil society expressed skepticism, particularly the National Constitutional Assembly which has long been critical of the MDC's engagement with ZANU-PF. Chairman Lovemore Madhuku told reporter Jonga Kandemiiri that Mr. Tsvangirai has compromised the democratic struggle and the new government will change little.

For additional perspective on Mr. Tsvangirai's assumption of office, reporter Ntungamili Nkomo turned to political analyst George Mkwananzi in Johannesburg.

Mr. Tsvangirai's designated co-minister of home affairs, parliamentarian Giles Mutsekwa, said in an interview at VOA in Washington that he was not daunted by the task of sharing control of the key ministry, which has oversight of the national police, with a ZANU-PF counterpart.

Mutsekwa, who represents the Dangamvura Chikanga constituency of Manicaland province in the House of Assembly, has long been Mr. Tsvangirai's shadow defense minister.

Mutsekwa told hosts Patience Rusere and Chris Gande of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that Mr. Tsvangirai's rise to prime minister was "bound to come" as an outcome that the former opposition party, which garnered a majority in the lower house of parliament in the March 2008 general election, had been working towards since its founding in 1999.

Ordinary Zimbabweans expressed satisfaction at Mr. Tsvangirai's installation.

From Harare, Wiseman Mutero said he saw the dawn of a new era, while Blessing Chidoko in Gweru, the capital of Midlands province, said his earlier skepticism had been dispelled as he now sees the power-sharing arrangement as the only way forward for the country.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...