3 March 2002

South African rumors: Mugabe might step down after elections

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has given an undertaking to step down as head of state, but only after contesting next weekend's presidential elections. Southern African government officials have told the Sunday Times that Mugabe promised to end his 22-year reign after being advised to do so by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and Zimbabwean intelligence. The South African and Nigerian governments, who are concerned about the fallout from next week's election, have been working to ensure both Mugabe's Zanu PF and the Movement for Democratic Change accept a package of measures designed to ensure political and economic stability no matter who wins. They have been worried that instability will continue if Mugabe continues to hold on to power.

During his last visit to Harare, in January, Obasanjo tried to negotiate a deal with Mugabe which would have seen the ruling Zanu PF select another presidential candidate for the election. According to regional officials, Obasanjo's initiative received the support of South African President Thabo Mbeki. "Even at that late stage, Obasanjo was trying to convince him that it would be best if he stepped down on condition of a number of guarantees," one official said. The guarantees included securing Mugabe's future and making sure the law would not be used against him. Last year, senior South African and Zimbabwean intelligence officials discussed a similar strategy. Intelligence agencies of other Southern African Development Community countries were canvassed and also advised Zimbabwean intelligence officials to convince their president to step down. The interaction took place before Zanu PF's national conference in December with the view to allowing an alternate candidate to be chosen then. "He [Mugabe] did not take kindly to this. So it fell flat," an official said. Obasanjo then made the last-ditch attempt to talk to Mugabe. "The unofficial response from Mugabe was that the time is not opportune at the moment. He said he must go ahead with the election now, but afterwards he will pull out," he said. However, there is no firm agreement to bind Mugabe to the undertaking.

ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe confirmed this week that the party had also embarked on "several initiatives" with Zanu PF and the MDC to defuse tensions in Zimbabwe. These included discussions around two "friendly amendments" to the constitution in favour of the MDC. These are: Aligning the term of parliament to that of the presidency; and Placing a ceiling on the number of consecutive terms served by an elected president. The constitution would also provide for the establishment of an independent electoral commission to preside over the elections. This would have meant the election would have been held only in about 18 months' time. "This formed the basis of our proposal to Zanu in December . . . In that time there would have been reduced tensions and levels of violence," Motlanthe said. "They [Zanu] said it was too late in the day to consider this." (Sunday Times, Johannesburg)

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