MDC leader Nelson Chamisa. Picture: TIMESLIVE
MDC leader Nelson Chamisa. Picture: TIMESLIVE

President Emmerson Mnangagwa failed to attend a meeting organised by Zimbabwe’s churches to mediate talks between him and opposition leader Nelson Chamisa.

Mnangagwa, who had previously expressed interest in attending, sent his defence minister, Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri, to represent him. The president’s no-show was largely seen as a reciprocal move against Chamisa, who on Wednesday snubbed Mnangagwa’s meeting to lay the framework for dialogue with all opposition parties.

The two political leaders have not met since the elections in July 2018, which Mnangagwa narrowly won. Chamisa has contested the poll outcome, maintaining that Mnangagwa was an illegitimate leader who rigged the poll.

Relations between the two further deteriorated in this year after 12 people died when the military was deployed to squash protests over a fuel increase.

Mnangagwa accuses Chamisa’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of inciting the violent demonstrations while the opposition has criticised the brutal response by the army, which has been accused of using live ammunition, and abducting and raping citizens. Opposition MPs and party supporters have also been arrested and jailed.

Church leaders said they had stepped in to bring political parties together and lay the foundation for talks about the revival of the economy and national healing.

In an interview with journalists at the end of the meeting, Chamisa said Mnangagwa’s absence at the church meeting was “unfortunate and totally regrettable”.

Chamisa said the church-organised event was a better platform than Mnangagwa’s Wednesday meeting, which was at his official residence, State House. “These are neutral platforms where we are supposed to come together and look at our country. We can’t use State House, where one party is an actor, chooses the venue, the agenda, the participants.

“The church is a neutral platform, it’s a neutral gate to find each other. There is no other soft landing platform other than the church.”

The opposition leader accused Mnangagwa of playing a game of cat and mouse.

“Dialogue is the only answer, we can’t run away from each other, when I go to platforms where I expect to see him he disappears, when he invites me to platforms where he knows I will not be able to come, he then pitches up. We have to avoid this cat-and-mouse [game].”

In a speech read for him by Muchinguri-Kashiri, Mnangagwa promised to work with the church in facilitating national dialogue. “My government appreciates the role of the church. My door will remain opened.”

In an address to the gathering, a representative of the churches Rev Simba Mutandwa said the country was in urgent need of dialogue.

“The last few days have confirmed what the church has always viewed as the three diseases afflicting the well-being of our nation: unhealed and broken relationships; weak foundations of constitutional democracy; and an ailing economy.”