Zimbabwe: Southern African states tackle "dinosaur" Mugabe

The new regional determination to deal with Zimbabwe's internal problem spells an end to South Africa's "quiet diplomacy" policy.

By Benedict Unendoro in Harare (AR No. 106, 30-Mar-07)

Few expected the Southern African Development Community meeting held in Dar es Salaam this week to have any dramatic effect on the political impasse in Zimbabwe.

However, analysts now believe that by placing Zimbabwe squarely on the agenda of the Southern African Development Community, SADC, regional states are at last beginning to exert some real pressure on President Robert Mugabe.

With South African president Thabo Mbeki now tasked by the SADC with mediating in the conflict, a fundamental shift in his country's response to the Zimbabwean situation is likely, say observers.

Much to the disappointment of Zimbabweans and members of the international community, Mbeki's response up until now has been what he calls "quiet diplomacy" - discreetly nudging the protagonists in the Zimbabwean conflict to solve their problems internally.

Last week, in preparation for the March 28-29 SADC meeting, top South African officials met for several hours with factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to discuss ways of solving the crisis. Meetings with Mugabe and other players in the political conflict are also in the pipeline.

South Africa's gentle diplomatic approach has so far failed, as Mugabe's regime blithely continues on the warpath against the opposition - a path it embarked on in 2000 when it became clear that Zimbabweans were fed up with their leader and desired change.

Over the past eight years, Mugabe has presided over the fastest-shrinking economy in the world, outside a war zone. He has blamed this economic catastrophe on western sanctions imposed after his controversial victory in the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2000 and 2002, respectively. The West has used sanctions to pressure him to restore the rule of law and open up democratic space for the opposition.

"What happened in Dar was that the heads of state and government attending that meeting virtually said to Mbeki, 'You have not done enough. Go out there and do something'," a diplomat in Harare told IWPR.

The diplomat, who did not want to be identified, said it would be very difficult for Mbeki to continue with the "quiet diplomacy" policy, because his counterparts in the region would now be exerting pressure on him to produce results.

The SADC region has suffered considerably from the continuing crisis in Zimbabwe. Millions of Zimbabweans have fled as economic refugees to neighbouring countries, particularly South Africa, Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique, placing strain on their economies.

The upsurge in criminal activity in some of these countries may in part be attributed to poor Zimbabweans fighting for survival. Also, the region is struggling with a food deficit, partly as a consequence of the destruction of commercial farming in Zimbabwe. Mugabe's fast-track land reform programme involved forcibly grabbing land from experienced white farmers and handing it over to his cronies, who lacked the expertise and financial resources to sustain agriculture.

"Mugabe has become something of a dinosaur in the region," said the diplomat.

Mugabe was the last of a generation of strongmen in the region who liberated their countries and still remained in charge. Others included Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Mozambique's Samora Machel, Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, and Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia. All except Kaunda are dead.

"The new generation of leaders were prepared to ignore him as long as he remained a herbivorous dinosaur," said the diplomat. "But as soon as he became a tyrannosaurus rex, they had to curb his appetite for his people's blood."

Mugabe has maintained a semblance of democracy over the years, allowing periodic elections observed mainly by monitors from SADC countries sympathetic to him. The elections have been pronounced free and fair, contrary to reports on the ground of intimidation and corruption.

"They could forgive him for rigging elections. They all rig elections in one way or another," said the diplomat. "But when he began bashing legitimate opponents in police cells, they just couldn't stand by and watch."

He was referring to the recent severe beatings of leaders of the opposition MDC, including its president, Morgan Tsvangirai. The MDC is represented in parliament and is therefore counts as a legitimate political party.

But Mbeki faces a daunting challenge in the person of Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe harbours a strong dislike for Tsvangirai, whom he has labelled a lapdog of the West. "Tsvangirai will never rule this country as long as I live," he has often been quoted as saying.

"Mugabe's loathing of the MDC and its leader is so deeply entrenched in his mind, it's a kind of psychosis," said the diplomat.

The African leaders gathered in Dar es Salaam must have been convinced that Mugabe was the chief obstacle to progress in Zimbabwe and saw in Mbeki the only person who could confront him.

Mbeki leads the biggest economy in the region, so his sheer economic muscle may be enough to persuade Mugabe to make way for a new dispensation.

But the SADC leaders may have underestimated what is at stake for Mugabe. He is currently engaged in manoeuvres to extend his rule indefinitely by arm-twisting his ZANU-PF party to nominate him as its candidate in next year's presidential elections.

He has already garnered support from the powerful Women's and Youth Leagues, who say they want him to become "life president".

Mbeki's point of departure may be to convince Mugabe not to stand for election next year. But the Zimbabwean leader wants to preserve his legacy, and according to insiders, he is not prepared to live with the shame of being seen as a liberator-turned-villain. Dying in office would avoid this, and also spare him the indignity of facing possible trial for the crimes he has accused of committing against his people over two-and-a-half -decades in power.

Mugabe will not be Mbeki's only problem, though. The opposition MDC is itself deeply divided, having split over personality differences between its leaders in 2005.

Tvsangirai's leadership qualities are also in question and many regional leaders doubt he is really his own man. Many political analysts have said that in order for the political impasse to be resolved, both Mugabe and Tsvangirai must be cleared out of the way. But if Tsvangirai is sidelined, the whole opposition movement would collapse because of the leadership vacuum.

"Although his leadership credentials are suspect," said one analyst, "he is the only one in the opposition with a national and international appeal. Mbeki would have no choice but to sacrifice Mugabe and keep Tsvangirai in the fray. That won't be easy, because Mugabe is a bitter loser."

Whatever happens now, Mbeki is likely to spend time shuttling between Johannesburg and Harare, giving regular feedback to the SADC leaders who have entrusted him with the task of solving Zimbabwe's problems.

"Whichever way you look at it, the meeting in Dar spelt the end of Mbeki's quiet diplomacy," said the diplomat.

Benedict Unendoro is a pseudonym used by a reporter in Zimbabwe.