Zimbabwe: Mugabe agrees to talk to Tsvangirai

HARARE - Embattled President Robert Mugabe has agreed to talks with opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, to find a solution to Zimbabwe's fast deteriorating crisis.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, behind the renewed effort to pull Zimbabwe back from the brink of economic and social disaster, last week told British legislators that talks between Mugabe and Tsvangirai could be held in Zimbabwe or South Africa.

The proposed talks, whose dates or specific agenda still have to be fixed, would be held under the mediation of a respected African, possibly a retired president from a southern African country.

Obasanjo, who convinced Mugabe to agree to dialogue when they met on the sidelines of the African Union summit in Libya last week, said the Zimbabwean leader was initially unco-operative and reluctant to commit to talks with his political opponent.

"But I persisted and he agreed a facilitation should take place," said Obasanjo, who added that he had also managed to get Tsvangirai to agree to talks with Mugabe during a meeting with the Zimbabwean opposition leader in Abuja, the previous week.

The proposed talks would be the first face-to-face meeting between Mugabe and Tsvangirai who last met more than six years ago to discuss worker problems when Tsvangirai was still leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

Talks between Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party and Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party that were brokered by Obasanjo and South African President Thabo Mbeki collapsed in August 2002. ZANU PF pulled out of the talks in protest after Tsvangirai filed a court application challenging Mugabe's re-election earlier in the year.

Subsequent attempts by Mbeki and Zimbabwean church leaders to bring the country's two biggest political parties to the negotiating table have failed with Mugabe and ZANU PF accusing Tsvangirai and his party of being controlled by Britain and the West, insisting they will not negotiate with stooges.

The opposition, which accuses Mugabe and his party of routinely stealing elections, denies being a stooge, instead claiming that the Zimbabwean leader and his government avoid a negotiated and democratic settlement for fear it could lead to free and fair elections resulting in their losing power.

Even after giving his word to Obasanjo, it remains uncertain whether Mugabe would finally agree to meet Tsvangirai, whom he appears to loathe personally and has in the past accused of hiring assassins to kill him.

But analysts say Mugabe, who could still use his ZANU PF party's absolute control of Parliament to change the constitution and extend his term in office without facing elections, might this time round be forced to the negotiating table as Zimbabwe faces total collapse amid growing concern by African countries that have so far stood with Harare.

A six-year fuel shortage worsened in recent weeks bringing most of industry and commerce to a virtual halt with only a handful of garages supplying the commodity across the country. Electricity is also in short supply.

A quarter of Zimbabwe's about 12 million people could starve unless donors provide 1.2 million tonnes of food aid. Essential medical drugs, several other basic survival commodities and hard cash are also in critical short supply.

Inflation, which hit an all time record high of 622.8 percent in January last year, has retreated to 144.4 percent at present but remains one of the highest such rates in the world. Unemployment is pegged at 80 percent, while a burgeoning HIV/AIDS pandemic is killing at least 2 000 Zimbabweans every week. - ZimOnline.