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Zimbabwe: Mugabe loads new cabinet with hardliners (+video)

'It is back to the past. A past of slumber, mediocrity, in-fighting and indifference' -- Tendai Biti, former Zimbabwe finance minister, on Robert Mugabe's new cabinet.

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Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe unveiled a new cabinet made up of hard-line supporters, some of whom have personally murdered his political opponents, in a move that worries those hoping for a political opening in the southern tier of Africa.

There had been intense speculation about Mr. Mugabe's cabinet choices since he won an historic seventh term in July. That victory ended five years of an uneasy but effective working coalition with former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai that notched small but significant reforms, and is given credit for improving the economy. 

Many analysts believed with the election over, the 89-year old would appoint technocrats from his party. Yet few moderates and no opposition figures are in the new inner-circle. 

Mugabe, 89, has chosen more militant politicians to run his key ministries, bringing little comfort to Zimbabweans or western critics; many of the new figures are accused of human rights abuses, the curtailing of media freedoms, and past dubious handling of the economy.

Mugabe's choice of former Defense Minster Emmerson Mnangagwa as justice minister suggests Mugabe favors a hard-liner to succeed him. Mr. Mnangagwa, one of two people tipped to succeed Mugabe, is nicknamed "The Crocodile," and is thought to be the chief architect of the Gurkurahundi massacres in Matabeleland in the late 1980s, where thousands of opposition supporters were killed.

Philip Pasirayi, director of the Center for Community Development Zimbabwe, said the new cabinet was nothing short of “jobs for the boys” and would be a “huge disappointment” for Zimbabweans. "Instead of change, there is going to be continuity of the same policies that have hurt our politics and our economy,” he said.

However, some seemingly brighter news may come packed into the Tuesday cabinet shuffle: Mugabe decided to remove the minister of mines, who stands accused of aiding the widespread plunder of Zimbabwe’s diamond reserves.

Also significant: Mugabe removed Saviour Kasukawere, the minister who drove Zimbabwe's policy of "indigenization" and who stated after elections that the government would quickly take over foreign businesses and mining concerns as a way to enact Mugabe's black nationalist ideology of liberation. 

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Landslide

On July 31, Mugabe won 61 per cent of the presidential vote compared to Mr. Tsvangirai's 34 percent. Mugabe''s Zanu-PF party won a two-thirds majority in parliament, kicking Tsvangirai’s MDC party out of a coalition that had been agreed on after a bloody round of disputed elections in 2008.

The cabinet moves take place as Mnangagwa is engaged in a power struggle with the more moderate Joice Mujuru to succeed Mugabe. 

Stephen Chan of the School of Oriental and African studies at the University of London says it appears now that Mnangagwa’s more militant faction is leading in the latest cabinet appointments. “The appointment of Sydney Sekeramayi, a key Mnangagwa ally, as minister of defense means he retains his influence over the military, while the appointment of Jonathan Moyo, another of his allies, to the information ministry is also good for him [Mnangagwa],” he said.  

Mr. Moyo left a definite impression during his previous tenure as information minister in the early 2000s. A shrewd and often outspoken academic, Moyo introduced repressive media laws that criminalized whistle-blowing and made it almost impossible for foreign media to operate in Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile Former Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, known for packing Zimbabwe's courts with judges who openly favor the ruling party, has been awarded the finance ministry. In 2008 Mr. Chinamasa acted as caretaker finance minister when Zimbabwe’s worthless dollar was abandoned in favor of the US dollar and other currencies. He has little economic background. 

He will take over from Tendai Biti, from the opposition MDC party, which faces severe debts from the financing of the July election and is struggling to pay the salaries of civil servants.

Piers Pigou, a Zimbabwe expert with the International Crisis Group, said the decision to put moderates in charge of economic departments such as indigenization and mining may be heartening to those worried about a nosedive in Zimbabwe’s economy.

But the reasons for the appointment of Chinamasa, a lawyer and close ally of Mugabe who has no real finance experience, were unclear. “Mr .Chinamasa was a hard-liner in the justice ministry but it will be interesting to see just how versatile he will be in this portfolio," Mr. Pigou said. "He will certainly have his work cut out for him.” 

Former finance minister Biti has a similarly bleak assessment of the new cabinet. “I am one of those who genuinely hoped that Zanu-PF would confound all of us and assemble a cabinet full of younger technocrats, determined to a make a difference and push the country forward,” he wrote in a comment piece for a local news website. “Instead, how predictable it all became. It is back to the past. A past of slumber, mediocrity, in-fighting and indifference.”


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