Page last updated at 14:56 GMT, Monday, 10 May 2010 15:56 UK

Bennett acquittal could signal next Zimbabwe battle

By Brian Hungwe

Robert Mugabe (L) and Morgan Tsvangirai shake hands in Harare - 21 July 2008
Another round in the long Mugabe-Tsvangirai rivalry may be brewing

The acquittal of Roy Bennett, one of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's top allies, has cleared one of the major obstacles dogging Zimbabwe's year-old power-sharing government.

The High Court in Harare threw out charges of terrorism, banditry and sabotage, involving an alleged plot to overthrow President Robert Mugabe.

But it could also signal the beginning of another heated debate.

Mr Bennett was on the verge of taking up a position as deputy agriculture minister when he was arrested in February last year.

Political message

Now Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) hopes he can take up the post immediately.

"We hope that Bennett will be sworn in to his post because all the stumbling blocks have been cleared," said MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa.

Roy Bennett (file image)
2000: Elected MP
2004: Jailed after pushing minister in parliament
2006: Accused of plot to kill President Mugabe
2006: Fled to South Africa
2009: Nominated as deputy agriculture minister; arrested
May 2010: Acquitted of plot charges

"So we are expecting to have tomorrow honourable Bennett, deputy agriculture minister."

Judge Chinembiri Bhunu's scornful attack on the state witnesses, some of whom displayed "amazing ignorance," perhaps gives credence to the MDC view that the charges against Mr Bennett were "trumped up" and a deliberate delay to the implementation of the power-sharing government.

But the political message to be read from the charges is that certain parties in Zimbabwe do not want a former white farmer to hold such a sensitive portfolio.

Mr Bennett's deployment to the agriculture ministry irked the security services and top Zanu-PF officials, many of whom benefited from the land reform programme.

Given allegations that the majority of them, including President Mugabe, are multiple farm-owners, there is likely to be another fight.

Zanu-PF sources say another portfolio should be created for Mr Bennett.

But this flies in the face of assurances given by President Mugabe that he would not hesitate to swear in Mr Bennett if he were cleared.

Moving goalposts

The acquittal does not appear to be the end of the road, however.

Zanu-PF's resistance to a national audit of the chaotic and haphazard land reforms speaks volumes about its attitude to progress in that sector.

The MDC may have another fight on its hands, especially after damaging allegations that Mr Mugabe owns more than five farms were laid bare in the High Court.

More could follow.

It is unlikely that President Mugabe will accommodate Mr Bennett or allow him near controversial files that might expose the rot.

Mr Mugabe has a proven history of moving the goalposts mid-game but idications are that he will negotiate again.

The MDC is in a strong position to demand that Mr Mugabe follow through on his promise but the president has the final say in government matters.

He is unlikely to shift, especially if the matter involves a "controversial" former white farmer who lost his farm under Mr Mugabe's land reforms.

If he wanted to boost confidence that flaws in the farming sector were being addressed, Mr Mugabe would swear in Mr Bennett, and thus also demonstrate his sincerity.

Should Mr Mugabe climb down and swear him in, it would be a huge political statement.

But there is a general expectation Mr Mugabe will dig in and the MDC will again cry foul, leaving the shaky unity government back at square one.

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