February 25, 2002

British rumors: Mugabe ready to flee Zimbabwe

President Mugabe is said to be planning secretly his escape route out of Zimbabwe after his private polling predicted he could be defeated in next month’s elections.

The ailing 78-year-old has been sounding out some of his African neighbours and his dwindling number of friends abroad about providing him with a safe haven. Fearing that his opponents might try to jail him before he had a chance to slip into exile, Mr Mugabe reluctantly agreed that overtures should be made to opposition rivals. He is said to have asked President Obasanjo of Nigeria to arrange a deal about his future at an extraordinary late-night meeting in Harare last month.

Much to his surprise, Morgan Tsvangirai, the presidential candidate for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was invited to Mr Mugabe’s official State House residence in the capital. Mr Tsvangirai, who has survived several assassination attempts, agreed to go to the meeting only after he was given guarantees for his own security by President Obasanjo.

At 2 am Mr Tsvangirai was ushered into its main reception room. Only the Nigerian President was there: Mr Mugabe had refused to be present. “President Obasanjo moved closer to Morgan Tsvangirai and, pointing to a portrait of Mr Mugabe on the wall, he asked: ‘What are you going to do about him if you win?’ ” a diplomatic source said.

“Morgan Tsvangirai made it clear he does not want to put Mugabe on trial, or jail him and said he would allow him ‘to leave Zimbabwe with dignity’. President Obasanjo smiled, nodded his head and said: ‘Good. I think that is for the best’.” The deal also guarantees that Mr Mugabe’s wife, Grace, and his three children can leave, but the MDC leader insists he will ensure that Mr Mugabe does not take any looted money and treasures with him.

Rumours circulate in Harare that Mr Mugabe has the crew of his presidential helicopter on 24-hour standby and the aircraft is parked on the lawn of State House should a swift getaway be needed.

The question remains where Mr Mugabe, who is thought to have suffered a recent stroke, will choose for his exile. Richard Cornwell, of the South Africa Institute of Security Studies, believes that he will elect to stay in Africa, even though he has cultivated government leaders in Malaysia, Thailand, Cuba and North Korea, among others. “African leaders are trying to persuade him not to rig the elections on March 9 and 10, and to go peacefully if he loses,” Mr Cornwell said.

Nevertheless, it is by no means certain that Mr Mugabe will bow out gracefully if the vote goes against him. There are fears among diplomats in Harare that Mr Mugabe could blame international interference for a flawed election and try to rule by martial law. (The Times, London)

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