Is it all over?

2008-04-30 00:00

At last we may be witnessing the final chapter of Zimbabwe’s drawn-out agony. At the time of writing the final election results have still to be announced, but it looks as though Robert Mugabe is on his way out. I know this has been predicted before, only for some new twist to see hopes evaporate. This Götterdämmerung opera will not be over until the Old Man sings. But this time things do look different.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s (Zec’s) sudden acceleration of its recount of those 23 disputed parliamentary seats, after a full month of stalling, and its

confirmation that the figures were correct after all and that the reunited Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had indeed won control of parliament, smelled of a deal having been done behind the scenes.

It suggested that the old regime had capitulated. Even if Mugabe was able to rig a run-off election, he would face the difficult task of trying to govern with a hostile legislature. Not impossible but tortuous. It would mean ruling by presidential decree, effectively declaring himself a dictator, which not even the timid Southern African Development Community (SADC) would be able to condone.

What brought about this sudden capitulation? One can only speculate, but the surge of public disapproval throughout the region, and particularly in South Africa, has undoubtedly played a role. As long as the disapproval came only from the “imperialist” west, Mugabe could brush it aside. But the surge of outrage in his own backyard shook him and opened cracks in the Zanu-PF leadership.

There have been telltale signs of this along the way. Ten days ago City Press newspaper published a question-and-answer interview with Morgan Tsvangirai in which it managed to bury an item of singular newsworthiness at the tail-end of a 2 000-word report.

In what should have been its front page lead, the paper quoted Tsvangirai as saying that he knew on the Sunday following the March 29 election that the MDC had won, and that the next day an emissary from Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF came to see him.

“On Monday they sent an emissary to say we have been trying to persuade Mugabe to concede,” Tsvangirai said. “Mugabe has accepted, now the question is how can you accommodate us? They even suggested, why don’t you give Mugabe a role for six months?

We said: ‘No. He should go and retire.’ ”

Asked by the City Press reporters what went wrong, Tsvangirai replied: “I think what went wrong is this: some of the hawks in the military said we can’t accept transfer of power and that’s when the problem started. The hawks in the military and the hawks in Zanu-PF were not prepared to accept the verdict of the people. I think they regrouped and went to Mugabe, and Mugabe, being a hawk himself, found a constituency.”

I have managed to substantiate independently that this is indeed what happened that Monday, three days after the election.

It changed the whole strategic picture. It meant the central

problem was no longer Mugabe himself, but the military commanders.

The reason is clear. The SADC leaders and Tsvangirai himself had pledged publicly to give Mugabe “an honourable exit” with immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity. But no such assurances were given to the six commanders of the security services — the chiefs of the defence force, the army, the air force, the commissioners of police and prison services and the head of the National Intelligence Organisation, who together form the powerful Joint Operational Command (Joc) which is the power behind Mugabe’s throne.

Two are particularly vulnerable: Air Marshall Perence Shiri, who commanded the notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade which massacred some 20 000 people in Matabeleland in a repressive campaign ordered by Mugabe in the early eighties, and Defence Force chief Constantine Chiwenga, who has been involved in more recent atrocities.

These men have every reason to fear a change of regime and the departure of their protector, Mugage. One can imagine them feeling aggrieved at Mugabe’s willingness to step down into safe retirement while leaving them to face the music.

This meant the strategic focus needed to switch to them. If the Zimbabwean crisis was ever to be resolved, there would have to be a deal with the JOC chiefs.

I suspect that this is what has engaged the mediators, whose resolve appears to have been strengthened by the intervention of the United States assistant secretary of state for Africa, Jendayi Fraser, who has been doing some not-so-quiet diplomacy of her own as she has shuttled around the SADC region.

Ironically, Mugabe’s cynical attempt to buy time to deploy his forces so he could win a rerun while beating his opponents into submission, has allowed time for behind-the-scenes negotiations to deal with the problem of the military commanders.

Just how this is being handled is not yet clear. But it should have been obvious from the outset that it was an issue that required the closest attention — that a way would have to be found to grant the JOC chiefs immunity from prosecution in return for their retirement from the armed forces — which in any case would have to be depoliticised if Zimbabwe was to stand a chance of being reconstructed.

The other side of such a deal may well be to persuade Tsvangirai to agree to form a government of national unity — without Mugabe, but including several Zanu-PF ministers. As we South Africans know from our own experience, including members of the old regime, however odious, into the new administration is vital if one is to achieve a measure of national re-conciliation.

Finally, it must be said that Jacob Zuma’s outspokenness and that of his Cosatu allies have played an important role in stepping up the pressure on the Mugabe regime.

Zuma has been forceful, calling the crisis “a sabotage of democracy” and describing Zimbabwe as “a police state”. Coming with the full backing of the African National Congress, Zuma’s admonitions have not only helped clear the suspicion that we South Africans have been secret supporters of Mugabe’s misrule, but his strong leadership has opened space for others in the ruling alliance to become more assertive.

Thus Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi has accused Mugabe of waging war on his people and of staging a coup d’état. Vavi has denounced the regime as “illegal” and called on labour movements and governments worldwide to make it clear that “this regime cannot be tolerated in Africa”.

Strong stuff, contrasting sharply with President Thabo Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy. And the words have been backed by action. We have seen the Cosatu-backed Transport and Allied Workers Union, together with civil society activists, turn away the shipment of Chinese arms intended for Zimbabwe.

That was a watershed event which sent a strong message to Mugabe and his military chiefs. It told them in no uncertain terms that their powerful southern neighbour was strongly critical of their oppressive rule, and warned that the new ANC leadership would take a much tougher line if they were still there when it comes to power next year.

It’s that kind of pressure that causes tyrants to waver and cracks to appear in their ranks.

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