May 1, 2008 — Vol. 43, No. 38
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Mugabe’s future may hold the key to Zimbabwe’s crisis

Donna Bryson

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Resolving the thorny question of Robert Mugabe’s fate may hold the key to breaking the impasse over Zimbabwe’s disputed presidential vote.

Mugabe has not himself suggested he would be willing to step aside if he were granted immunity for alleged human rights abuses and allowed to fade into comfortable retirement.

But others in Africa have made that case for him, saying that as a one-time lion of African liberation he deserves a dignified exit, and that other African strongmen have followed that path.

Recent flexibility within his own party could signal movement toward such an arrangement. The strongest sign has been a proposal by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party to share power with the opposition.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) rejects that, saying its leader Morgan Tsvangirai won outright. But the ZANU-PF overture hints at a dawning realization in the Mugabe camp that it has lost its iron grip on power.

As the political camps circle each other, election officials have yet to release the vote results, and the opposition says the delay is part of a plot by Mugabe to cling to power while his people suffer international isolation and an economy spiraling out of control.

Increasingly, it appears that unless Mugabe is assured of a future, his people won’t have one.

The top U.S. envoy on Africa, Jendayi Frazer, told reporters in southern Africa last week that Tsvangirai had won the right to lead any unity government.

As to Mugabe, she said: “If he does the right thing, he should be allowed to stay in Zimbabwe with the dignity of a former president.”

A proposal that ZANU-PF and the MDC share power in a government headed by Mugabe surfaced in an unlikely quarter last Wednesday: a column in Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper usually devoted to denunciations of the opposition.

The following day, the column was back to accusing the MDC of working “to frustrate land reforms and protect the interests of the minority landed classes,” and called the unity government proposal unfeasible.

But it is significant that the debate is being played out in ZANU-PF’s mouthpiece.

The idea of a coalition government — akin to the solution that helped calm post-election violence in Kenya earlier this year — seems to have galvanized diplomacy.

In Zambia last Thursday, a government spokesman said a national unity government in neighboring Zimbabwe could be a “welcome decision” if it can unite the country. The Zimbabwean opposition has called on Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa to help mediate their nation’s crisis.

U.S. envoy Frazer, who helped mediate the Kenyan solution, met last Thursday with officials in South Africa, whose President Thabo Mbeki has been a key mediator in Zimbabwe. The next day, she visited Zambia and planned a stop in Angola as part of her Zimbabwe diplomacy.

At independence, Mugabe was hailed for campaigning for racial reconciliation, and for bringing education and health to millions. Now, he regularly denounces whites — at recent independence celebrations, he accused them of plotting to re-colonize the country.

Economic gains that once made Zimbabwe the region’s breadbasket have been reversed. Many of its people depend on handouts after the collapse of the agriculture sector blamed on the seizures, often violent and at Mugabe’s orders, of farmland from whites.

Mugabe claimed the seizures begun in 2002 were to benefit poor blacks, but many of the farms went to his ZANU-PF cronies. Political dissenters, meanwhile, face jail and beatings.

“The man invokes conflicting emotions,” Tsvangirai said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “The transformation he’s gone through, from hero to villain, is unprecedented.”

Mugabe, though, isn’t a villain to everyone. He holds fellow African leaders in thrall with fiery rhetoric at regional meetings. The rhetoric also plays well on the streets across Africa.

Tsvangirai has been traveling in Africa in recent days, ostensibly rallying support. But he also has met leaders like Mozambique’s Afonso Dhlakama, head of the former rebel movement Renamo now in the political opposition. Dhlakama urged Tsvangirai to offer Mugabe guarantees he would not be prosecuted.

In Nigeria, Tsvangirai met former President Olusegun Obasanjo at the Nigerian leader’s chicken farm.

Obasanjo first came to power through the military in 1976, after his own predecessor in the ruling junta was killed in a coup attempt. He stepped down three years later after civilian elections — becoming the first after a long series of Nigerian junta leaders to voluntarily hand power to an elected president.

He ran as a civilian in 1999, and was hailed as the man who restored democracy to Nigeria. Eight years later, he tried and failed to overturn constitutional term limits, then saw his anointed successor elected in a vote marred by fraud allegations.

In Washington last Wednesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would welcome the intercession of Nigeria or any other African nation with influence in Zimbabwe.

Tsvangirai told reporters in Nigeria he respected Mugabe as a liberation leader. Perhaps one who deserves a cushy retirement on a farm somewhere in Zimbabwe.

Donna Bryson is southern Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press.

(Associated Press)

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