Soon to depart his Harare post, U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee in an interview with VOA on Thursday described as "wrong-minded" those who argue that the national unity government formed in February might need to stay in place for four or five years given the hurdles to organizing a new round of elections on a horizon of 18-24 months.
McGee, scheduled to conclude his Harare assignment in early July, was asked if he believed free and fair elections could be held within 18 to 24 months as some in the former opposition Movement for Democratic Change formation led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai have suggested is desirable given the the troubled course of the unity government.
"That I think is going to be a little bit optimistic," McGee said. "We're starting to fall behind on the constitutional (revision) timetable, first of all. Unfortunately there's nothing in the Global Political Agreement (for power-sharing) that says you have to have that election in 18 months to two years. We're already hearing too many voices saying that it may be necessary to maintain this current government of national unity for four or five years. Now that's just absolutely wrong-minded thinking and the type of thinking that creates problems for us in trying to deliver assistance, development assistance, to this government."
U.S. officials including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Mr. Tsvangirai earlier this month when he was in Washington that expanded financial support to the Harare unity government depends on progress in restoring and protecting human rights and the rule of law. McGee said Mr. Tsvangirai had heard an "unequivocal message" from U.S. and other Western officials, "but we need to see both sides of this unity government engaged in forward movement, and that's just not the case so far."
Mr. Tsvangirai shares power in an uneasy accommodation with President Robert Mugabe and his long-ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF.
The unity government was formed to end a political deadlock following 2008 elections marred by widespread, deadly violence, and a presidential runoff in which Mr. Mugabe claimed victory amid widespread challenges to the legitimacy of the uncontested second-round ballot.
Asked if there had been any meaningful progress on human rights or the rule of law since the unity government was installed, McGee replied:"Let me give you a very short answer: no."
The ambassador offered some final thoughts to the Zimbabwean people as he prepares to return to Washington.
"Without the people, there is absolutely no need for government. Government exists to meet the needs, the welfare of the people. And government has to be responsible to those needs, or the government should be ousted - throw the rascals out," McGee said.
"When I look at the ongoing problems here in Zimbabwe, it tells me that there is a lack of leadership. The government of national unity is one that needs to work, but until we have both parties truly committed to forward movement here in Zimbabwe, it's not going to work. I want to say to the people of Zimbabwe, your country has unlimited potential. But the people of Zimbabwe need to step up and demand better from their government."
When he took up his post in November 2007, succeeding the outspoken Christopher Dell who drew personal invective from Mr. Mugabe, McGee indicated he wanted to rebuild bridges to the Harare administration. But that was not to be as the 2008 elections unleashed a wave of politically motivated violence aimed in particular against rural supporters of Mr. Tsvangirai's MDC formation, which had scored major inroads in former ZANU-PF strongholds.
McGee was outspoken in denouncing the violence and visited victims both in Harare and in the provinces, leading to confrontations with police and criticism by government officials.
In reporting his scheduled departure, the state-controlled Herald newspaper ran a lengthy diatribe taunting McGee. The paper said he was leaving Zimbabwe “bruised and battered” because he had not been able to block the formation of the unity government.
In an interview with reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe McGee said the United States and other Western countries want to see a commitment to reform by both sides of the government - including ZANU-PF - but this has not been happening.