Zimbabwe: Appoint Neutral Interim Government
Zimbabwe: Appoint Neutral Interim Government
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Zimbabwe: Appoint Neutral Interim Government

Zimbabwe's Parliament, its only legitimately-elected body, should take the lead in resolving the country's crisis by legislating for a non-partisan transitional government to rule for 18 months and plan new elections, writes Donald Steinberg, a former aide to President Bill Clinton of the United States.

If things could get any worse in Zimbabwe, they have. The country is on the verge of complete collapse: there are no public services, no health sector, no economy. Half the population needs food aid and humanitarian groups say it will take hundreds of millions of dollars of new support over the upcoming weeks to avoid mass starvation.

With the breakdown of water supplies, cholera is spreading. Already 1,700 people have died from the disease, with many more infections expected in the next two weeks. At least four million Zimbabweans have fled to neighboring countries, and the entire region, including South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Malawi, is at risk.

The international community has been paralyzed over how to help Zimbabwe move back from the precipice. While there are calls for President Robert Mugabe's departure - some from Africans such as Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu - Mugabe and his hard-line Zanu-PF supporters and security officials have shown themselves immune to international pressure.

There are signs that Mugabe is about to name a cabinet unilaterally and many fear he will declare a state of emergency or martial law to justify further repression. He recently told supporters that "Zimbabwe is mine."

Implementation of the flawed power-sharing deal negotiated by former South African president Thabo Mbeki following the fraudulent June 2008 presidential election run-off is hopelessly deadlocked. Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party will not accept genuine power-sharing, and Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) are understandably unwilling to join an administration as, at best, weak junior partners, responsible for ending international isolation but without the authority to implement reforms and distribute emergency humanitarian relief. Creating a government with two centers of power is inherently unworkable in the current non-cooperative environment.

Zimbabwe's long national nightmare must end, and its only legitimately-elected body - Parliament - must take the lead.

Parliamentarians should prepare a constitutional amendment to create a non-partisan transitional administration to govern for 18 months, under the leadership of a chief administrator - a neutral Zimbabwean from the private sector, civil society or an international institution. This person should be chosen by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, and would be ineligible to stand for president in the next election or serve as prime minister after it.

Under this plan, Mugabe must stand down and should never be able to hold public office again. The positions of president and prime minister should remain unfilled through the life of the transitional administration and partisan ministers should be replaced by neutral administrators. Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC would have to put their leadership aspirations on hold until new elections.

The job of the transitional administration would be to prepare presidential elections in 18 months through a reconstituted and apolitical Electoral Supervisory Commission, and to address the humanitarian and economic crises immediately.

Such a deal would give Mugabe immunity from prosecution, a dignified exit and the assurance that he will not simply be handing power to his bitter rival. His main supporters in the security forces could be offered the same amnesty and honorable retirement. While this would be hard to swallow for those who have suffered at the hands of the regime, it would end the current suffering as well as the prospect of massive suffering in the future.

Right now the MDC has deep concerns over the potential response of the Zimbabwean security forces and Zanu-PF hardliners to an immediate transfer of power. The prospects for a dangerous and violent transition are very real. Such an outcome would serve no one, least of all Mugabe, Zanu-PF stalwarts and the security forces.

For the MDC, the approach I have outlined would secure Mugabe's immediate departure, create a cooling-off period and improve the prospects of a smooth transition.

To facilitate such a process, the Southern African Development Community and the African Union should name a new international mediator to succeed Mbeki. Regional actors such as South Africa and Tanzania should offer forces to help ensure stability during the transition.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should at the same time appoint a special representative to mobilize international help in addressing the humanitarian crisis. The international community could assist the transitional government in the huge task of reconstruction and ensure that all parties cooperate.

If patriotism and a desire to end their country's tragic suffering aren't enough to drive Zimbabwe's leaders to create a credible, competent government that can inspire confidence at home and abroad, enlightened self-interest should be.

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