April 30, 2003

SOUTH AFRICA / ZIMBABWE: Mbeki off to Harare to discuss Mugabe exit

South African President Thabo Mbeki is expected to travel to Zimbabwe on Monday, May 5, with President Robert Mugabe's early retirement likely to be on the agenda, despite denials yesterday by the Zimbabwean government that Mugabe will step down before his term expires in 2008. Mbeki's spokesman Bheki Khumalo on May 1 confirmed that Mbeki, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and Malawian President Bakili Muluzi were travelling to Zimbabwe on Monday, May 5.

Initially there had been doubts whether the newly re-elected Obasanjo would be part of the delegation. "The president will get there on Monday morning," Khumalo said. "But he is not coming there to impose a regime change." While not giving details of Mbeki's visit, a South African senior government official said one of its aims would be to bring Mugabe's Zanu (PF) and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to the negotiating table. One of the main obstacles to talks has been the MDC's claim that Mugabe was not legitimately elected. Information Minister Jonathan Moyo denied April 29 that during the visit by Mbeki, Obasanjo and Muluzi, Mugabe's early departure would be discussed.

Almost a week after Mugabe said in a television interview that he would consider retiring, Moyo also denied that he would bow out before his six-year term ended in 2008. "President Mugabe has not indicated a wish to leave office now or at any other time before the expiry of his term," Moyo said. Rather than a definitive statement that Mugabe will not retire before 2008, the response from Moyo appears intended to shore up Mugabe's position. Its immediate aim appears to be a dismissal of the idea that the purpose of the mission to Zimbabwe by the three presidents is to force Mugabe to retire. Moyo said reports about Mugabe's retirement plans were "wishful" and the three presidents were coming to Harare only to get up to date on the situation in the country. Moyo said Mugabe's intention, when he said he would consider retiring, was to stimulate debate, but there had been none and only "flippant speculation ..." Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's main opposition party responded to the speculation on the "exit strategy" for Mugabe, by saying it would drop a legal challenge to last year's presidential poll if Mugabe agreed a retirement plan. Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) secretary-general, Welshmen Ncube, told IRIN on Friday, May 2, that the need "for [an election re-run] falls away" if Mugabe "lays out a clear retirement package, with time frames that are non-reversible". What would follow, according to the MDC, would be a transitional authority lasting between six to 12 months that would organise fresh elections. Issues of immunity for Mugabe, for alleged violations of human rights, "are open for discussion", Ncube said. He added: "Our negotiating position is: we want a transitional authority with the specific authority to organise fresh elections as quickly as possible, an independent electoral commission, an accurate voters' role, a return to the rule of law, a disbanding of the [pro-government] militia, an end to violence, and the repeal of repressive legislation like POSA [the Public Order and Security Act] - in short, the creation of conditions that are normal in a democracy." (Business Day, Johannesburg/ Zimbabwe Independent, Harare/ IRIN)


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