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Mugabe swears in rival as Zimbabwe PM

Robert Mugabe, who remains president under a power-sharing deal worked out by leaders of neighboring countries, administered the oath to his longtime rival Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister.

world Updated: Feb 12, 2009 09:34 IST

Zimbabwe's president, who has fiercely guarded power in the country since its independence, and an opposition leader once beaten by suspected government thugs shook hands on Wednesday like the colleagues they are now, not the enemies they have been.

Robert Mugabe, who remains president under a power-sharing deal worked out by leaders of neighboring countries, administered the oath to his longtime rival Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister. Now the two men and their parties must work together to rescue their country from economic and humanitarian disaster.

"The road to this arrangement has not been easy," Mugabe said afterward, an understatement as stunning as the sight of him swearing in Tsvangirai. "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."

Tsvangirai has been beaten and was once nearly thrown from a 10th floor window by suspected government thugs. He acknowledged in a speech following Wednesday's ceremony that many don't think the partnership will work. But Tsvangirai said it was the "only viable arrangement."

Later, at a rally attended by some 15,000 supporters, Tsvangirai pledged to reopen schools 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 starting next month, all government workers, from teachers to soldiers, would be paid in hard currency to shield them from the world's highest inflation rate, which stands at more than 230 million percent. 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 dependent on international food aid.

Ian Stephens, a Harare businessman, said it was too early to celebrate the new government, which comes nearly a year after the country's disputed presidential election.

"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."

Street vendor Sampson Ibrahim stood in a crowd watching the broadcast 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 Wednesday he had offered "my hand of friendship and solidarity to work with (Tsvangirai's party) for the service of Zimbabwe."

Mugabe, who turns 85 on Feb. 21 and has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980, 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 presidential election held almost a year ago, and withdrew from a June runoff only because of attacks on his supporters.

Tsvangirai's decade-old party, the Movement for Democratic Change, also broke ZANU-PF's lock on parliament in March elections for the first time since independence.

A power-sharing deal was reached in September but the sides remained deadlocked for months over how to divide Cabinet posts. Tsvangirai on Jan. 30 agreed to join the government now and resolve outstanding issues later. Parliament adopted a constitutional amendment creating the prime minister's post a week ago. The coalition agreement calls for the government to make its priority reviving the economy. Even if the factions can put aside their differences, they cannot do much without foreign help. The world's main donor, the United States, has made clear the money won't flow if Mugabe tries to sideline Tsvangirai. State Department spokesman Robert Wood congratulated Tsvangirai on becoming prime minister. But he said the United States would not ease sanctions or provide development assistance until it sees evidence of "real, true power sharing on the part of Robert Mugabe."

"We'll just have to wait and see," Wood told reporters. Botswana, among the neighboring countries most critical of Mugabe, welcomed Tsvangirai's swearing-in and expressed hope the new government "will work and help to alleviate suffering of the people of Zimbabwe," said Clifford Maribe, spokesman for Botswana's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe told his Parliament on Tuesday that the swearing in was a vindication of his country's approach to the crisis. Motlanthe called on the international community to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe and turn its attention now to Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis.

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who mediated the unity deal, had stuck to a strategy of quiet diplomacy on Zimbabwe for years despite criticism that the approach amounted to appeasing Mugabe.

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 the elections are free and fair, after several ballots marred by violence, intimidation and manipulation blamed on Mugabe's party.

Tsvangirai on Wednesday called for political detainees to be released. Human rights groups say tortured detainees are on the verge of dying in jail.

Some Tsvangirai allies say he never should have agreed to serve as prime minister in a government that left Mugabe president. Mugabe, meanwhile, 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 swept Mugabe to power in 1980. 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, described the absence of the military chiefs not as a snub, but an effort "to reflect the new Zimbabwe." Mugabe's regime had been described by some as close to a military government, with generals and revolutionary war veterans holding high government and political posts.