On his first day as education minister in a government so broke that most schools were closed and millions of children idle, David Coltart said he got a startling invitation.
“Come and get your brand-new white Mercedes,” an official told Coltart, a veteran opposition politician, as President Robert Mugabe peered down from a portrait on the minister’s office wall.
The offer of an E-Class Mercedes to every minister in the month-old power-sharing government was vintage Mugabe, an effort to seduce his political enemies with the lavish perks he has long bestowed on loyalists.
Coltart said no thanks.
Opposition members like Coltart who joined Mugabe in office last month have already achieved some successes, like getting teachers back to work and winning the release of some political prisoners. But many of them warned in interviews that the progress would be short-lived if Western nations, meeting Friday in Washington to discuss expanding assistance, did not extend billions of dollars in aid to rebuild Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe’s main donors of emergency medical and food aid — the United States, Britain and other European nations — face a painful question posed by those pleas for more help. How do the world’s wealthiest nations pump money into Zimbabwe’s crippled economy without propping up Mugabe, feeding his patronage machine and extending his disastrous three decades in power?
Before fully re-engaging with Zimbabwe’s government, the donors have said they want to see the release of all political prisoners, a halt to seizures of white-owned farms and the restoration of a free press. But some diplomats here say hard-liners in Mugabe’s old guard seem determined to sabotage the power-sharing agreement and the infusion of Western aid that the public would credit to the newcomers, led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change.
The most critical test for Tsvangirai is whether he can deliver on his inaugural promise to pay the civil service in foreign currency — particularly the police officers and soldiers who have enforced the repressive rule of Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF, but whose pay in the local currency is now worthless. Even some diplomats who were most skeptical about Tsvangirai’s deal to govern with Mugabe, 85, now sense an opportunity to weaken “the old man,” as he is called here.