President Robert Mugabe swore in his longtime rival as prime minister Wednesday, cracking his nearly three-decade stranglehold on power and conceding they must work together to rescue Zimbabwe from economic and humanitarian disaster.
The image of Mugabe administering the oath of office to Morgan Tsvangirai was extraordinary given the history of state-sponsored violence against opponents. The opposition leader has been beaten and was once nearly thrown from a 10th floor window by suspected government thugs.
Tsvangirai acknowledged in a speech after the ceremony that many Zimbabweans don’t think the partnership will work, but he said it is the “only viable arrangement.” He promised to begin repairing the economy and healing the country’s other wounds.
Government has been gridlocked since elections last March left the presidency in dispute and broke the long-ruling ZANU-PF party’s control of Parliament. As the political factions squabbled month after month, the once-vibrant farm economy slumped deeper into calamity.
Many people have new hope now that the unity government is taking office, but they also worry about how serious Mugabe will be in sharing control after determinedly holding on to every shred of power since independence from Britain in 1980. He has been under pressure from aides in the military and government who do not want to give up power and prestige to the opposition.
Unusually for a state occasion, no military chiefs were at Wednesday’s ceremony. Generals in the past have said they would not salute Tsvangirai, a former labor leader who did not take part in the independence war that ousted a white-minority regime and swept Mugabe to power.
Elphas Mukonoweshoro, an opposition leader who was to take the oath of minister of public service when the rest of the Cabinet is sworn in Friday, said he wasn’t concerned by the absence of the military chiefs. He said it was not a snub, but an effort “to reflect the new Zimbabwe.”
At a celebration rally attended by some 15,000 supporters later in the day, Tsvangirai pledged to reopen schools that are closed because teachers can’t afford bus fare and to fight a cholera epidemic blamed on the cash-strapped government’s neglect of hospitals and sanitation.
He drew the biggest cheers when he said all government workers — from teachers to soldiers — would be paid in hard currency starting next month to shield them from the world’s highest inflation rate. He did not say how the government would afford that.
People in the crowd threw Zimbabwe dollars like confetti, expressing their contempt for the nearly worthless currency.
The country’s economic collapse — for which Tsvangirai holds Mugabe responsible — has left millions of Zimbabwean dependent on international food aid.
Ian Stephens, a Harare businessman, said it was too early to celebrate the new government.
“It depends on how cooperative Mugabe is and whether he can be trusted,” Stephens said. “Mugabe no longer has absolute power and that could be the turning point.”
Sampson Ibrahim, a street vendor, joined a crowd that watched the ceremony on a TV in the window of an electronics store in downtown Harare.
“I am happy because I expect prices to go down,” Ibrahim said. “They’ve got to get the schools and the hospitals working again.”
Mugabe declared during the ceremony that he is offering “my hand of friendship and solidarity to work with (Tsvangirai’s party) for the service of Zimbabwe.”
“The road to this arrangement has not been easy,” the president said later. “It has been a long and tedious road. But we hope and trust that we have put ourselves to a commitment of making this country work again.”
Leaders of neighboring nations pushed for the governing coalition, saying that once Mugabe and Tsvangirai joined in a unity administration they would overcome mutual mistrust and work together for the good of Zimbabwe.
Mugabe, whose 85th birthday is Feb. 21, has in the recent past treated the 56-year-old Tsvangirai as a junior partner at best.
Tsvangirai won the most votes in the first round of the presidential election last March, but withdrew from a June runoff with Mugabe because of widespread attacks on opposition supporters.
Even though Mugabe clung to the presidency, Tsvangirai’s decade-old Movement for Democratic Change broke ZANU-PF’s lock on parliament in the March election for the first time since independence.
A power-sharing deal was reached in September but it was stalemated for months because the factions couldn’t reach agreement on allotting Cabinet posts. Tsvangirai finally agreed Jan. 30 to join the government and resolve any remaining disputes later.
The coalition agreement calls for the government to make reviving the economy its priority. Even if the factions can put aside their differences, they cannot do much without foreign help. The United States has made clear the money won’t flow if Mugabe tries to sideline Tsvangirai.
Botswana’s government, among the most critical of Mugabe, welcomed Tsvangirai’s swearing-in. It hopes Zimbabwe’s unity administration “will work and help to alleviate suffering of the people of Zimbabwe,” said Clifford Maribe, spokesman for Botswana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The unity government’s agenda includes preparing for new elections, expected in a year or two. Media restrictions will have to be lifted and other steps taken to ensure voting is free and fair after ballots in recent years were marred by violence, intimidation and manipulation blamed on Mugabe’s party.
Tsvangirai called Wednesday for political detainees to be released. Human rights groups say tortured detainees are on the verge of dying in jail.