Can Morgan Tsvangirai Save Zimbabwe?

High on the sixth floor of a drab building in downtown Harare sits Morgan Tsvangirai. Dim and barren, his office is a far cry from the digs most prime ministers enjoy. But Tsvangirai is far from most prime ministers. If he needs any reminder of this, there, on his otherwise bare office wall, hangs an elegantly framed portrait of Robert Mugabe: the dictator Tsvangirai has tried to overthrow for more than a decade and with whom he now shares power. Tsvangirai isn't intimidated by the gaze of his nemesis, the last of Africa's Big Men. "He's not the only one who can watch," Tsvangirai says. "I'm looking right back. I'm watching him too."

The collaboration between these two men is as unlikely as it is uncomfortable. The result of a deal struck in February under international pressure after elections that most think Tsvangirai won but Mugabe tried to steal, it is an almost unprecedented arrangement: an emblematic dictator ceding partial power to a hated insurgent in a last-ditch bid to shape his legacy. Neither man trusts the other and neither has taken to their forced cohabitation easily. "Can you imagine [working with] someone who has threatened your very existence?" asks Tsvangirai, whose face bears the emotional and physical wounds of their combat. "Sitting down in the same room? It's unimaginable," he says. Yet that's precisely what they're doing.

As prime minister, Tsvangirai has finally gone from being Zimbabwe's public enemy No. 1 to an officeholder with real executive muscle. Yet his challenge is enormous: reforming the economy with limited power, convincing skeptics that Zimbabwe is a good investment, and trying to ease out Mugabe without destabilizing the regime. And for every gain there have been terrible losses. A week after the election, Susan Tsvangirai—his wife of 31 years and his most trusted adviser—was killed in a car crash many think Mugabe engineered. Tsvangirai has met with Barack Obama in the White House, but he struggles to enact the simplest laws at home. Mugabe loyalists still control the attorney general's office, all the major security portfolios, and the state-run media. Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has fragmented, and its members continue to be threatened and jailed.

So far, the prime minister has focused primarily on stabilizing the economy, to some success. Within weeks of taking power, he replaced the Zimbabwean dollar with the U.S. one, ending years of fiscal chaos and an inflation rate in the millions. The results were immediate: industrial production shot up, and after years of decline, the economy has grown by 3.7 percent this year, according to the World Bank. Zimbabwe is now a changed place in many ways. Under the power--sharing deal, MDC officials took over key posts such as the ministries of finance and planning. The sense of economic panic that once prevailed, when the price of bread could double in a few hours, is gone. Ordinary people seem to enjoy a newfound sense of routine. Journalists (including this one) can work fairly freely, and while the intimidation of MDC supporters continues in some areas, it's a far cry from the mayhem that prevailed last year.

Tsvangirai has even managed to craft a working relationship with the president. "Mugabe's work over the last few years is indefensible, but we've agreed to work together," says Tsvangirai. "The wheel is turning slowly." The two men now meet every Monday morning in Mugabe's office, where they confer in a mixture of English and Shona. They ask about each other's families. Little by little, Tsvangirai has begun to raise the most delicate issues, including Mugabe's record corruption and abuse. "He doesn't want to own up to that," Tsvangirai says, "but I confront him, I do. He denies it. I try to bring the evidence, but he denies those things."

Indeed, in many ways the battle to control Zimbabwe remains as fierce as ever. The MDC controls Parliament, but just barely. Finance is Tsvangirai's only powerful portfolio, while Mugabe still controls the men with guns. His judges still sit on the bench, and the president has managed to block the appointment of a new Reserve Bank governor and attorney general as called for under the power-sharing deal, as well as the appointment of key provincial governors. "The last four months have been hell," says Tendai Biti, one of Tsvangirai's closest friends and the new finance minister. "This has been a forced marriage of two people that were never meant to meet. There is suspicion, disrespect, and derision." Biti, by transforming the finance ministry into a watchdog for all things economic, has had some success at blocking the efforts of Mugabe cronies to loot the state. But, as he says, "the guns are still loaded. It's a very poisoned atmosphere."

No one has felt that bitterness more than Tsvangirai himself. He first appeared on Mugabe's radar in the 1980s, when he replaced Mugabe's younger brother Albert as the head of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and immediately set about trying to peel it out of Mugabe's clutches. This began a long struggle. Tsvangirai probably won the 2000 election, but Mugabe rigged it to stay in power. Mugabe then put Tsvangirai on trial for treason in 2004, an ordeal that nearly tore Tsvangirai's family apart. In March 2007, Tsvangirai was beaten and almost killed by regime thugs. And then came last year's election and the death of Tsvangirai's wife. Biti, who was with the future prime minister at Victoria Falls when his chief of staff broke the news to him, says Tsvangirai took Sarah's death "on the chin." But two weeks later, when a beloved grandson drowned in a swimming pool, Tsvangirai finally collapsed. "He said, 'Why me? Why me?' " recalls Biti. "All I could say was, we just have to pray and be strong." Tsvangirai broke down and cried.

It's a cruel irony that critics now accuse Tsvangirai of going too easy on the man he's fought for so long. A persistent rumor has it that Mugabe bought off Tsvangirai with money, power, or influence—a tactic Mugabe has used in the past. There are signs that some in the opposition are growing disillusioned with their leader. Tsvangirai "shares executive power with Mugabe, but he doesn't push it," says one well-placed source who has asked to remain anonymous because of his relationship with the prime minister. "He's too soft. He doesn't crack the whip."

Soft or not, the arrangement does seem to suit the president's interests. Mugabe has basically confessed to Tsvangirai that he knows that this is probably his last chance to change the way history judges him. "Mugabe is aware that people don't trust him," says William Bongo, one of Tsvangirai's closest aides and his former spokesman. It's even possible that Mugabe would go further if he could. The president has signaled to Tsvangirai that opposition from the hardliners in his own party is what's stalling progress. As Bongo puts it, "Mugabe is under tremendous pressure from these people—militants, diehards, military guys, all those who benefited from the failed state. They feel let down" by the power-sharing deal.

According to Tsvangirai's son and confidant Edwin, his father is not trying to "reform" the president. "But I think he's trying to allow him, perhaps as a victimizer, to see no animosity. He is saying, you are at a moment where you don't have much hope to look forward to anything, to even realize what you've fought for. But you still have this window, before you exit this life, to make a sacrifice."

If the dictator has softened, however, the hard shell of corruption and cronyism surrounding his party, ZANU-PF, has thickened. Tsvangirai and his allies continue to discover all kinds of theft and financial irregularities by regime loyalists. But the prime minister tries to be positive. "To me it's about rewarding progress rather than punishing."

Still, that's easier said than done. Initial cooperation between the two camps—on economic issues, for instance—has not extended to other areas like -security--sector reform, drafting a new constitution, or reinstituting the rule of law. And many fear that the diehards are digging in for a long and nasty fight. "ZANU can't make themselves more popular, but they can make us unpopular," says one key Tsvangirai aide who asked to remain anonymous. "It's like [George Orwell's] Animal Farm at the end, when the animals can't tell the difference between the pigs and humans. That's ZANU's strategy." Tsvangirai is finding it hard to keep his party together. After spending so long out in the cold, the benefits of power are hard to resist. Earlier this year, for example, ZANU made sure that all the new Tsvangirai loyalists in government got a brand-new Mercedes. "We shouldn't have taken them, but we did," says the adviser.

Such moves haven't helped Tsvangirai persuade the West to pony up much-needed funds for reconstruction and development. Zimbabwe still scores shockingly badly on development and health-care indicators. But Western countries, including the United States, are loath to do anything that would give Mugabe more staying power. Last week the European Union refused to lift sanctions or offer more aid unless long-awaited political reforms are enacted. No one doubts the scale of economic progress made by Tsvangirai, but it won't come to much unless the government makes political changes that allow improvements in health, education, and food production. Without them, "things will sputter along, with some incremental progress, but we won't see things take off," says one Western diplomat in Harare who didn't have permission to speak on the record.

All these pressures have forced Tsvangirai into what may be his toughest role yet: cheerleader for a regime that he both opposes and is a part of. "Everyone across the political divide wants to see this government succeed," he says, looking at up at the portrait of Mugabe on his wall. "That's the only way that can take this country forward. No one benefits from this government sliding backwards to where it was before," he concludes. If Tsvangirai can convince the world—and Mugabe—of that fundamental truth, it will be a monumental achievement indeed.

Join the Discussion