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Back to the future

Stephen Chan

With or without Robert Gabriel Mugabe, Zimbabwe is not at a point where it can sink no further. Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko, Uganda in the aftermath of Idi Amin, genocide in Rwanda, and the civil wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone all stand as examples of what could still come.

With or without Robert Gabriel Mugabe, Zimbabwe is not at a point where it can sink no further. Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko, Uganda in the aftermath of Idi Amin, genocide in Rwanda, and the civil wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone all stand as examples of what could still come.

Powerful actors on all sides in Zimbabwe are realising that the worst must not be allowed to happen. If their interests are to survive, the future has to be rescued from the hands of the current president. The last sacrifice in the struggle for national liberation will be Mugabe himself, the father of the nationalist movement.

Within Mugabe’s own party, Zanu-PF, frantic realignments are taking place. Among the likely successors, several share a common history. Solomon Mujuru, the retired army commander, and his wife Joice Mujuru, currently Vice-President, command significant military credentials. The top soldiers are behind them.

Their hands would be stronger still if Didymus Mutasa, Minister of Security and architect of much of the current internal repression, chooses to throw his hat into their ring. An alliance with Mutasa would bring the Central Intelligence Organisation on to the side of the Mujurus.

The chief rival to the Mujuru camp is Emmerson Mnangagwa. As a former defence minister, he can draw on his own military alliances. If Mnangagwa opts to cooperate with the Mujurus, their combined resources would command decisive coercive force in the military and security agencies.

Together, these factions would present a formidable inducement to Mugabe not to persevere beyond 2008. But their triumph would become the triumph of coercive powers. Securocrats will run Zimbabwe and that is not a good omen for democracy.

Mugabe has good reason to seek to divide and rule these two factions. His efforts to date have not been decisive, making it likely that he will endeavour to fashion his own presidential force from Zanu-PF’s youth militia—the “Green Bombers”. This tactic would mimic the last act of prime minister Abel Muzorewa, who assembled a personal militia in the final days of Ian Smith’s minority white regime.

Relying on this method of brutal political policing to build Mugabe’s political leverage would be a sign of desperation. The Bombers are neither disciplined nor heavily armed. If Mugabe refuses to go without a fight, it won’t be civil war - the Bombers cannot withstand an organised military push. But they could cause much bloodshed in a showdown.

Will it come to this? Certainly, Mugabe is in a belligerent mood. His fighting talk has become more militant and the lashing out—both verbal and in attacks on the opposition—is a departure from his usual style. Mugabe has always sought to give the impression of being in control. He acts calmly, preferring to taunt his opponents with disdainful sarcasm. There is no sarcasm now.

The opposition—the two MDCs—are edging towards unity. How they can sustain this momentum from the protests of early March is not clear, although they have a powerful incentive to cooperate if they are to secure an effective role in the political brokering that lies ahead.

Morgan Tsvangirai has, as ever, shown immense courage—and even Arthur Mutambara has now been blooded. They are closer together than before. But the two MDCs have been ineffectual for so long that a single explosive moment is no reason to predict a last push sufficient to topple the old president.

The larger ambition of the opposition movements was not just to bring down Mugabe but to democratise Zimbabwean politics. Here, it will be the South Africans who will call some decisive shots. But, whatever the outcome, the horse-trading that must follow Mugabe’s departure will not be very democratic.

South Africa has long sought a unity government. They would be happy with a coalition involving the Mujurus, Mnangagwa and Tsvangirai. While they do not have a strong view on Mutambara, they will assume that it is better to have all the “name” actors inside the government, rather than outside.

This emphasis on inclusivity will make it easier, in the post-Mugabe period, for South Africa to guide Zimbabwe into a new era of political transition. There is not much Zimbabweans will be able to do to resist. The great nationalist project will have led to foreign influence of a new—and greater—sort than ever before.

For the international community, this is likely to be enough. Whether one of the Mujurus, Mnangagwa, Tsvangirai or Mutambara is president is a smaller issue. The departure of Mugabe will be a symbolic moment for the West. Aid and investment will, slowly, resume. But this begs a terrible question: is the West prepared to sacrifice so many Zimbabwean lives merely because of its argument with Mugabe? The answer is probably “yes”. The synchronicity of Mugabe and Tony Blair both leaving office within 12 months would be truly symbolic.

The timing, however, remains far from certain. Dissidents within Zanu-PF are not yet ready to force out Mugabe. The two MDCs are not sufficiently organised. The president, meanwhile, is fiercely resisting.

An alternative strategy for Mugabe’s opponents is to prevent him from running again for president in 2008. That would mean another 12 months of Zimbabwe in meltdown. It might seem abstract, but there really is a big difference between inflation at its current rate of about 1 800% and say 5 000% in a year from now. At that rate, many in today’s Zimbabwean elite will not feel like much of an elite by next March.

Perhaps some combination of the dissidents and the MDCs will invite a visiting delegation of high-level African Union presidents to “persuade” Mugabe to accept honourable retirement. There may be a promise of immunities and protection, even exile. But this would imply an escape from accountability for those who have caused great hardship, just as Smith was allowed to at independence.

The image of a bitter old black man as an exact parallel of that bitter old white man is a miserable record for posterity. But this is the image history is likely to retain. Mugabe, the ruthless liberation leader who, after the war was won, combined ruthlessness with, for a time, highly successful government, but in the end sacrificed reality for his dream of a completed nationalism.

The president, with his defiant moustache and beautifully cut suits, has soft hands. I have noticed these hands. They are not hands that hold a hoe or spade. They do not remember how. They are hands that are used to eat daintily with good manners.

Perhaps, when he embarked upon the seizures of land in 2000, Mugabe felt the angel of death at his shoulder. He wanted to complete his life’s work. Instead, his actions have overturned the economic foundations of an independent country. Whoever next holds power in Zimbabwe might still think like a Jesuit, but should plan like a farmer - and grow food for his neighbour.

Stephen Chan is a professor of international relations in the University of London and Dean of law and social sciences at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He is the author of Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence and was a member of the Commonwealth Observer Group to Zimbabwe in 1980

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