CAN any good come of co-operating with Robert Mugabe? The contrasting performances of the old autocrat and his new Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, during the signing ceremony on September 15 showed the immense risks attached to their power-sharing agreement.
Mugabe, bitter and vengeful as ever, delivered the same rambling speech he has inflicted on audiences for the past 10 years.
Meanwhile, Tsvangirai was magnanimous, optimistic and even noble in his willingness to let bygones be bygones.
This agreement needs sober and realistic scrutiny, for David Miliband and Gordon Brown now face a dilemma.
Britain will soon be asked to recognise the new government and help fund the recovery of Zimbabweâ€™s shattered economy and society.
Handing over any money while Mugabe stays on as president would be deeply unpalatable.
If the settlement fails, any funding could serve only to tighten his grip on power. But if support is withheld, Zimbabweâ€™s suffering will persist.
How should Britain judge the Mugabe-Tsvangirai agreement?
The fundamental problem is that the whole notion of “power-sharing” is inherently flawed.
In reality, authority will not be equally apportioned between two politicians of goodwill.
Either Mugabe will remain the most powerful man in Zimbabwe â€” or Tsvangirai will supplant him.
Both outcomes are possible. Under the agreement, Mugabe will keep his grip on vital levers of power, notably the army, whose generals effectively took over the government during this yearâ€™s violent elections, and the Reserve Bank, which prints the money.
Meanwhile, Tsvangirai will have a majority in both the cabinet and parliament, assuming he can forge an alliance with the rival wing of the Movement for Democratic Change led by Arthur Mutambara. Again, this is possible, but by no means certain.
The only certainty is that a titanic struggle between Mugabe and Tsvangirai will now begin.
The prime ministerâ€™s erstwhile majority in cabinet and parliament will be pitted against the old autocratâ€™s control of the armed forces and of the governmentâ€™s purse strings.
Britain must not rush into any decision. The only way to judge this agreement is by concrete results.
To win international confidence and establish himself as the new governmentâ€™s leading force, Tsvangirai should swiftly accomplish four specific tasks.
First, he must ensure that aid agencies have unrestricted access to the millions of Zimbabweans who desperately need emergency food supplies.
With callous indifference to human suffering, Mugabe formally banned them from helping people during the election campaign and his brutal militias closed vast areas of the country to outsiders.
While this ban has been lifted, relief workers still endure harassment and obstruction.
All this must stop.
Second, Tsvangirai could take a first, vital step towards reviving the economy by sacking Gideon Gono, the discredited crony of Mugabe who presides over the Reserve Bank and bears key responsibility for the countryâ€™s meltdown.
The new prime minister should send the contemptible Gono packing.
Third, Tsvangirai should execute another sacking: Augustine Chihuri, the thuggish police commissioner, must be sent on his way. Chihuri has publicly proclaimed his loyalty to Mugabeâ€™s Zanu PF party and wrecked the credibility of his force by turning a blind eye to the violence of the election campaign.
Under the agreement, an MDC figure is expected to become home affairs minister with direct control of the police. Whoever takes the job should dispatch Chihuri on his first day in office.
Finally, Tsvangirai should tear up the repressive laws that Mugabe passed to save his own skin.
The Public Order and Security Act (Posa) requires police permission for any political gathering and makes criticism of the president a criminal offence.
Another law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), was used to shut down Zimbabweâ€™s only independent daily newspaper and stop foreign journalists entering the country.
These laws mean that Zimbabweans live under a permanent state of emergency. Both must be repealed. As the MDC holds a majority in parliament, this vital action could, in theory, be accomplished very quickly. Simply by taking this step, the atmosphere in Zimbabwe would be transformed.
If Tsvangirai achieves all of the above, he will swiftly establish his authority and prove that his government is worth supporting. Britain should then offer diplomatic recognition and financial aid.
The great risk is that the new government collapses into paralysis and infighting.
Deadlock between Mugabe and Tsvangirai could prevent anything useful from being done â€“â€“ and Zimbabweâ€™s headlong decline will continue.
If so, Britain should resist the temptation to offer any support. There will be no point investing in a rudderless, failing administration, in which Mugabe retains the power of veto.
For all his many faults, Tsvangirai is a man of compassion and goodwill. By assuming the premiership, he has shouldered a monumental task.
If he takes the four steps detailed above, he will prove that he is up to the challenge.
Over to you, Tsvangirai. â€” The Telegraph.