HARARE Feb 15 – Zimbabwe’s new finance minister has said the arrest of a ministerial candidate hours before he was to take oath in a unity government showed President Robert Mugabe’s party was not ready to share power.
Following Roy Bennett’s arrest on Friday on what his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party says were treason charges, Finance Minister Tendai Biti said the move was an ominous start for the unity government sworn in the same day.
"Bennett’s arrest proves what we have always argued: that ZANU-PF is not yet ready to work with anyone," said Biti, referring to Mugabe’s party.
However Biti, who has been the Zimbabwe opposition MDC party’s number two and faced treason charges himself in the past, ruled out a pull-out.
"Sadly we are forced to stay in this arrangement for the sake of the people of Zimbabwe," he said.
The MDC said in a statement that "the police are now saying they cannot lay formal charges for now and will try and work out formal charges on Monday."
"These charges have been long discredited and have been shown, like all treason charges leveled against MDC leadership, to be driven by vindictive political motives," it added.
Bennett, designated to become deputy agriculture minister, was arrested on Friday at an airport outside Harare shortly before Mugabe swore in new ministers for the unity government.
The power sharing government will see the country’s bitter enemies try and work together to pull Zimbabwe out of a deep crisis marked by hunger, the world’s highest inflation rate and a deadly cholera epidemic.
Bennett is a coffee farmer from Chimanimani, a lush region near Mozambique. He had returned last month from three years of self-imposed exile in South Africa, where he fled to escape charges of plotting to kill Mugabe.
He was initially charged with attempting to leave the country illegally, but the charge was later changed to treason, according to his party.
The feisty Bennett struck an upbeat note in a statement issued on Saturday through his lawyer.
"Whatever these challenges, if we remain unwaveringly dedicated, we will achieve peace, freedom and democracy in our life time – believe me," he said.
Bennett was among the most striking names on new Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s cabinet list.
Tsvangirai, a veteran opposition leader and a persistent thorn in Mugabe’s side, struck a conciliatory tone on Friday before the new government took oath.
"Unfortunately people are preoccupied with Mugabe as a person," he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper, referring to his arch-foe, who has ruled the country since its 1980 independence from Britain.
"Mugabe is part of the problem but he is also part of the solution. He is not the obstacle we are now facing."
Bennett’s Charleswood farm was expropriated under Mugabe’s land reforms in 2003, and the following year he was jailed for eight months for assault after he punched the justice minister during a heated debate in parliament on the land programme.
On Friday evening, police fired shots in the air to disperse a crowd of MDC supporters who were gathered outside the police station where Bennett was detained to demand his release, his lawyer said.
Southern African leaders pressured Mugabe and Tsvangirai into the power-sharing deal to end nearly a year of political turmoil following disputed elections last March.
The two men are meant to work together to battle nationwide food shortages, a cholera epidemic that has killed 3,400 people and inflation estimated in multiples of billions.
An estimated three million Zimbabweans have fled the country’s economic and political instability, and are now supporting their families with remittances of both cash and food.