We’ve got to talk to Mugabe now

By Richard Dowden

SEVEN weeks after the election victory of President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF party there is no sign that anyone has the slightest idea what to do next.



ace=”Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif”>Mugabe’s government is split over whether to return to planet earth and seek a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or to enforce more state control over the economy.


The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has missed its chance to follow the example of the citizens of Ukraine, Georgia and Madagascar and take to the streets to force out a tyrannical ruler. The South Africans are putting more energy into protecting Mugabe than persuading him to save his country. Britain still demands regime change and, with the Americans and the European Union, maintains targeted soft sanctions on Zimbabwe’s rulers.


Everyone is posturing. No one is talking to anyone else. Constitutionally, Mugabe is in power until 2008. His parliamentary majority, however, allows him to change the constitution. He has seen off the challenge of the MDC and the recent election, an improvement on 2002, has given him some legitimacy.


The opposition is not calling for a rerun of the election as it did in 2002 and challenges only 16 results. Even if it wins them all in the courts, the MDC will not have a parliamentary majority.


The MDC’s funders, the white farmers, have been driven out. So Mugabe and his party have won what they describe as Zimbabwe’s third war of resistance. Like his predecessor, Ian Smith, Mugabe believes that this land was won by force and no one is going to take it from him — certainly not through some liberal Western construct such as a democratic election.


But to win this latest war Mugabe sacrificed the economy. Zimbabweans are falling back on subsistence farming to survive. This year will be bad; the country needs to import 1,2 million tonnes of food for more than 4,5 million people who face starvation.


Until the late 1990s Zimbabwe’s economy was one of the most productive in Africa and the population one of the most highly educated and skilled. Now the economy is melting down as agricultural production, the economy’s driver, shrivels.


Inflation has been at more than 200% for some time and the street rate for foreign currency is between three and four times the official rate. No new investment is coming in, infrastructure is degenerating and skilled Zimbabweans are fleeing.


The HIV infection rate is one of the highest in Africa. If things continue as they are, by 2008 Zimbabwe will be a basket case.


The usually decisive Mugabe and his government are dithering, caught up in power struggles within the party as the battle for succession heats up. Their Marxist souls tell them that state control is the answer. Their heads and most of their advisers tell them that Zimbabwe must come in from the cold and seek a deal with the IMF.


“We want to come,” Nathan Shamuyarira, Mugabe’s long-standing colleague, told me, “but not on our knees.”


Some talk of trade with India and China to revive the economy. All they are likely to get is a flood of cheap imports which will undermine what remains of Zimbabwe’s industry. More likely it is a pathetic attempt to catch the attention of the West by playing the old Cold War card, threatening to “go over to the other side”.


Britain’s policy of isolation and regime change has failed. The policy leaves no options apart from invading or putting something nasty in Mugabe’s tea. It is time to rethink policy: first, Zimbabwe’s economy will not last another three years and nobody wants a failed state in the centre of southern Africa.


Secondly, allowing things to get worse will not bring about positive change. There is not going to be a popular uprising. People are too busy looking for something to eat. Continuing economic decline will weaken the opposition, not the government, because the backbone of MDC support, young, educated, urban Zimbabweans, are voting with their feet and leaving the country.


Thirdly, the MDC does not want to humiliate Mugabe. There is a chance of an internal deal that may involve immunity for past crimes. Zimbabwe may be one of the places where justice has to be delayed — perhaps until the next world — for the sake of peace.


Fourthly, Mugabe’s dictatorship is not like that of Sani Abacha in Nigeria or Mobutu in Zaire, which collapsed when they died. Zanu PF is a real political organisation. Many outsiders sympathetic to the MDC believe that, fraud and intimidation notwithstanding, Zanu PF actually won a majority of votes in the recent election.


Fifthly — and this is a hard one for Westerners to understand — Mugabe is widely popular in the rest of southern Africa.


But think of Britain in 1945. Everyone venerated Churchill as a Great War leader, but that did not mean they would vote for him. If we want Zimbabwe to survive there is no alternative: we have to talk to Mugabe. — The Times of London.


*Richard Dowden is the director of the Royal African Society but writes in a personal capacity.