May 9, 2003

No breakthrough in Zimbabwe

Hopes for a dramatic breakthrough in the current political deadlock faded this week after leaders of South Africa, Nigeria, and Malawi failed to prevail upon President Robert Mugabe and opposition chief Morgan Tsvangirai to shift their positions. However, there appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel as Mugabe and Tsvangirai agreed on the urgent need for dialogue to rescue the country from spiralling decline.

Analysts said although President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Bakili Muluzi of Malawi failed to force Mugabe and Tsvangirai to abandon their entrenched positions, the visiting statesmen managed to keep the local leaders locked in a process which they could no longer easily escape from. Mbeki, Obasanjo and Muluzi, who have been battling since 2001 to resolve the local crisis, were in Zimbabwe on Monday to kick-start dialogue between Mugabe and Tsvangirai over the present crisis. Their visit was preceded by Mugabe's recent statement in which he said he could contemplate retirement now that he had completed his land reforms. In an interview with ZTV last month, Mugabe also declared the succession debate open.

Speculation that Mugabe could be on his way out was compounded by Mbeki's remarks that he was aware Zanu PF was engaged in a process of "leadership renewal". Mbeki's spokesman Bheki Khumalo said in an interview this week that the talks were basically aimed at finding a solution to the current crisis. "We have come to get a briefing from President Mugabe and Tsvangirai on the situation on the ground and see what can be done to kick-start dialogue to resolve difficulties faced by Zimbabweans," he said. "This is an important process because it underscores our open-door policy. We are prepared to work with all stakeholders to resolve this crisis."

This was opposed to official statements that the three African leaders were in Zimbabwe to mediate between Harare and London. Zimbabwean government has been trying to portray the local political impasse as a bilateral dispute with Britain even though London has dismissed this as a "false fight".

While setting the record straight on the talks, Khumalo was keen to emphasise that Pretoria was not pursuing a regime-change strategy in Zimbabwe. "There is no question of regime-change here," he said. "The president (Mbeki) cannot be part of a scheme in which some people go round countries deposing their leaders as and when they so wish."

Analysts say Pretoria was anxious to dismiss reports that it was arranging an exit package for Mugabe, followed by a transitional arrangement and fresh elections, to avoid antagonising the Zimbabwean ruler at a time when he was being softly eased out of power through local and international initiatives.

Mugabe insists that the MDC should first of all recognise him as the legitimate incumbent president before the dialogue. To that end, he has been repeating his mantra that Tsvangirai must withdraw his electoral petition against his hotly-disputed re-election. But Tsvangirai - who is currently stealing a march on Mugabe following successful stayaways and by-election victories - has maintained his position that he would not withdraw his court challenge because he feared letting Mugabe off the hook. The opposition leader says he is prepared to meet Mugabe without pre-conditions.

Mugabe, who now appears harnessed to dialogue, looked glum after the talks and pleaded in pathetic tones for recognition. "I am the president of the country and I appoint the ministers who negotiate. I have legitimacy from the election and the process that swore me as president," he said. "The MDC have said they will not recognise me alongside Britain and America." The usually obdurate president, who until recently had ruled out talks with Tsvangirai claiming his party was a Western front organisation formed to oust him, stopped short of publicly begging for legitimacy. "Does the MDC now recognise me? That's the issue and if they do, it means the issue in court will be withdrawn, we talk to them and in that case we will be ready to move forward."

It appears that the withdrawal of the MDC court case has become a pre-occupation for Mugabe. When Obasanjo visited Zimbabwe on February 8 he met Tsvangirai after a briefing with Mugabe and spent about 20 minutes pleading with the MDC leader to withdraw his case. Tsvangirai refused.

It is understood that legal experts have advised Mugabe that his allegedly stolen presidency was under threat from Tsvangirai's lawsuit. Insiders said the experts warned Mugabe that the petition would open a can of worms and expose him in the process. This could have spurred Mugabe into a frantic campaign to ensure the election petition is withdrawn. There has been no hearing into the case filed last year in April. Recently MDC lawyers were haggling with the High Court over the set down of the case.

Tsvangirai told journalists after his meeting with the visiting leaders that the meeting went well. "It went on well," he said. "The fundamental issue was that Zanu PF and the MDC must sit and talk as a matter of urgency." In a statement, the MDC said the visiting leaders "sought to find out whether the MDC was committed to dialogue as a way of resolving the Zimbabwe crisis". (Zimbabwe Independent, Harare)

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