There is not likely to be much of a honeymoon period when Zimbabwe's new unity government takes office in February - both the international community and citizens demand urgent action to tackle the country's humanitarian disaster.
The outline of a power-sharing deal between President Robert Mugabe and the opposition has existed since September 2008, but implementation foundered over claims of bad faith levelled by both sides. Then, at the fifth attempt to break the deadlock, regional leaders announced on 27 January that Mugabe and his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, had agreed to form an all-party government on 13 February.
That deal was endorsed by Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on 30 January. The party, however, will be looking for guarantees from leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) over the equitable sharing of power in the new government, in which Mugabe will retain the presidency and Tsvangirai will be sworn in as prime minister on 11 February.
Tsvangirai has faced criticism from within his own party that he is being too hasty, with tthe terms of the deal not iron-clad, and SADC not an impartial or honest broker.
An MDC member of parliament (MP) and trade unionist said the deal was "suicidal" for Tsvangirai, even with the post of prime minister guaranteed by an amendment to the constitution. "It's clear he will go in there on their [Mugabe's ZANU-PF party] conditions as a junior partner, which means he won't be able to change policy," he told IRIN.
"His own political future will be compromised. ZANU-PF will use Tsvangirai to resuscitate their party: if people say they're hungry - blame it on Tsvangirai. He came in promising change, and he won't be able to deliver. If he says his hands are tied, people will say, 'Why did you go in knowing your hands would be tied?'"
An MP for the smaller MDC faction, led by Arthur Mutambara, dismissed these fears. "I've never understood why anybody would be ineffective, sitting in a cabinet with old, tired ZANU-PF ministers. At the technical and intellectual level, I just don't see what the fear is," she commented.
"The most they can do is refuse to deal with the matter [on the table], and then you say the cabinet was split [over the decision]." Mutambara, a professor of robotics, will become a deputy prime minister in terms of the September agreement.
Zimbabweans are exhausted by hyperinflation, food shortages and the evaporation of social services - all of which need political stability to fix. At abortive SADC-mediated talks on 19 January in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, protestors tried to barricade the negotiating parties in the hotel venue until they had agreed a deal.
Technically there has been no government since general elections in March 2008, in which the MDC outpolled ZANU-PF and Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in the presidential race. Tsvangirai fell short of winning over 50 percent of the vote and an outright victory in the first round, and then pulled out of the run-off in July in protest at brazen state-led political violence that killed over 80 of his supporters.
The Global Political Agreement (GPA), negotiated by then South African President Thabo Mbeki, aimed to break the political impasse by splitting power between the three parties, but did not address the thorny details of divvying up cabinet posts, and the responsibilities of president and prime minister.
Analysts suggest this has been the wrangle since the GPA was signed in September, with Mugabe facing hardline elements in his faction-riven party, who are resisting a deal.
"Zimbabweans are battered and bruised," said one civil society activist. "The process has been so drawn out - increasingly, all sides to the dialogue have become discredited."
When Tsvangirai and Mutambara are sworn in, "Would this be a real commitment to address the real issues facing poor and vulnerable people in Zimbabwe?" one NGO manager mused. "If setting up an inclusive government is a show of commitment by political leaders, then that's good."
The alternative to power-sharing would be fresh elections, but many fear it would be a signal for renewed repression. "SADC will sit on its hands, there will be no platform for us to access guarantees [on free and fair polls], just elections on Mugabe's conditions," the trade unionist said.
Harare's broad avenues, posh suburbs and city centre skyscrapers have not changed in a decade of recession - they have simply become more pot-holed, overgrown and run-down. But the suffering in urban households is intense, and people's resilience remarkable.
Aid workers call it a "silent emergency", in which pregnant mothers can die because they cannot afford medical care; people succumb to cholera because, after being treated, they return to neighbourhoods polluted with raw sewage; and seven million of Zimbabwe's estimated resident population of nine million people require food aid.
Sebastian Mtaramutswa depends on food relief, just like three-quarters of the people in his village near Goromonzi, 40km from Harare. The rains failed during the 2007 planting season and few in his 200-strong community have assets to tide them over. In 2008 he had no fertiliser so is he preparing for another grim harvest in March/April 2009. "You just have to manage," he told IRIN.
The struggle is about to get even tougher. The World Food Programme's (WFP) aid basket currently stretches just far enough to feed Mtaramutswa's household of seven for a month; on 29 January, as a result of a jump in beneficiaries and stalled donor funding, WFP announced the halving of cereal rations, which had already been cut in late 2008.
How urban Zimbabweans survive, when the average monthly salary is the value of a loaf of bread, seems inexplicable. Remittances of family members working abroad is crucial - although with the dollarisation of the economy and the shrinking of the parallel market, the value of those hard-earned pounds and rands has fallen.
Trading is another option, often the only real reason to come to work; for the more adventurous, there is also illegal gold panning and diamond mining. But it means barely surviving.
Child nutrition levels have not yet passed the emergency threshold, partly because adults seem to be prioritising their children. A survey in 2007 by the UN children's agency, UNICEF, found that 17 percent of adults had one or zero meals the day before they were interviewed; in 2008 the figure had shot up to 47 percent.
In a stop-gap measure to support a collapsing health sector, UNICEF is procuring 70 percent of all vital medicines required in the country under a US$20 million programme; antiretroviral drugs for AIDS treatment and childhood vaccines fall under a separate initiative. UNICEF is also providing a financial "incentive" in US dollars to get 20,000 health staff back to work as the cholera case load hits an incredible 60,000.
Health workers, like teachers, have demanded their salaries be paid in foreign currency, which the government has refused, even though the economy has effectively been dollarised. The government blames its predicament on the West, which it accuses of applying sanctions to oust Mugabe as punishment for land nationalisation introduced in 2000, aimed at commercial farms.
Since the government dropped its three-month suspension of humanitarian operations in August, aid workers have been far freer to operate. Dollarisation has improved the ability of NGOs to run their programmes, although some agencies still do not have access to funds "frozen" by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.
How far humanitarian organisations should go in supporting functions of government - in what is widely accepted as a man-made crisis - is an issue of debate. "We can't supplant government, or do anything as big as government," one aid worker noted.
Major infrastructural projects, like the estimated US$300 million needed to fix the sewerage and water supply, requires donor engagement. But this can only come when Western governments are prepared to sign off on a new administration and pump in reconstruction aid. One potential wrinkle is that the US, Britain and France have insisted that their support would be conditional on the removal of Mugabe.
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