Friday, April 18, 2008
Bobby Mugabe's endgame
The ruinous reign of Robert Mugabe is drawing to a close as aides work to secure him a facesaving exit after defeat at the polls.
Talks began after Mr Mugabe’s closest cohorts gathered at State House to inform him that he had not only failed to win an outright victory in the weekend’s presidential election, but was beaten into second place by his challenger.
Late last night Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, refused to declare victory but told reporters that he had achieved “above the constitutional requirement” to avoid a run-off.
He vowed to wait for the Election Commission to announce official results before declaring victory, raising suspicions that a deal with Mr Mugabe was already in place.
Mr Tsvangirai dismissed the delay as irrelevant, suggesting that he no longer feared vote rigging. “The people of Zimbabwe have waited this long. They can wait far, far longer,” he said.
South Africa was leading the behind-the-scenes negotiations on a power-sharing deal in which a member of Mr Mugabe’s ruling Zanu (PF) party would assume a vice-presidential position. Such a deal would also ensure that Mr Mugabe retained immunity from prosecution for any crimes committed during his authoritarian rule.
“It is over for Mugabe. No one is now talking about him staying on, just somehow finding a graceful exit,” a diplomat said.
Even Mr Mugabe’s own colleagues admitted that the regime was witnessing its final moments. “He [Mugabe] is prepared to step down because he doesn’t want to embarrass himself by going to a run-off,” a Zanu (PF) official said. “There is only one person still blocking him — the army chief of staff.”
On Saturday Mr Mugabe had dismissed talk of a second round, saying that such a move was unheard of in Zimbabwe. “We knock each other out in the first round,” he said. But his defeat was testing his pride. “He considers this to be a huge insult, he is a proud man and needs an exit strategy,” a source close to the talks said.
According to Western diplomats the man tipped to become the vice-president to secure Mr Mugabe’s safe retirement is Dumiso Dabengwa, the Zanu (PF) former Home Affairs Minister, who defected from the party five weeks ago.
He was part of a group of senior politburo members who, after years of discontent with Mr Mugabe’s rule, decided to mount their own challenge. Having failed to replace him as the party’s candidate, they chose a colleague, Simba Makoni, the former Finance Minister, to stand against the President. Mr Makoni’s entry into the presidential race peeled votes away from the ageing leader, splitting the Zanu (PF) vote to Mr Tsvangirai’s advantage.
At the same time, growing desperation over the country’s freefalling economy and population decline energised the population to get out and vote for the opposition.
Mr Mugabe’s rule began to unravel on Sunday as the MDC began releasing results that it had collected from individual polling stations, indicating the scale of its lead. Security chiefs then met members of the Election Commission. When they were told that President Mugabe was heading for defeat, the security chiefs ordered them to trickle out the results one by one, announcing one each to the ruling party and the MDC and leaving hours between announcements.
The delay caused alarm across the globe, with Britain, the US and the European Union insisting that the results be released immediately.
Yesterday afternoon the ruling party leaked its own projections that handed Mr Tsvangirai victory. MDC members spent the day speaking to the Zanu (PF) politburo to convince them that they must accept the results, offering incentives such as immunity or government positions to do so.
Diplomats said that nothing would be made official until a deal was finalised. Mr Dabengwa, who met The Times in Matabeleland last week, denied the reports that he was to become vice-president. But diplomats said that he was the ideal candidate for the job. Mr Dabengwa told The Times that he did not support putting Mr Mugabe on trial for the alleged human rights abuses of the past, noting that Ian Smith, the white Rhodesian former leader, had been allowed to go quietly after Zimbabwe won its independence from Britain in 1980.