Take all predictions about the end of Robert Mugabe's regime with a pinch of salt.
No one has a clue as to how the man will go; or when; or who will succeed him. Indeed, I doubt that President Mugabe himself can provide the answers to these questions. The ruling party and its cronies have fallen victim to the "dizzy worm" syndrome that afflicts all dictatorships in their final stage.
I first encountered the malaise in Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. President Mobutu Sese Seko had carried out yet another cabinet reshuffle. What was behind it, I wondered?
"What do you get when you shake up a can of worms?" replied a veteran diplomat, who went on to answer his own question.
Michael Holman was brought up in Rhodesia. He was Africa editor of the Financial Times, 1984-2002. His first novel, Last Orders at Harrods: An African Tale is republished by Abacus in March 2007; the sequel, Fatboy and the Dancing Ladies, will be published by Polygon in June 2007.
Also by Michael Holman in openDemocracy:
"Welcome to the aid business!"
(27 June 2005)
"The G8 summit: good for Africans?"
(11 July 2005)
"Africa: celebrity and salvation"
(23 October 2006)
"Trees for Africa"
(18 December 2006)
"The Soul of the White Ant, Eugène Marais"
(19 February 2007)
For years Mobutu continued to shake the can, reshuffle after reshuffle, duping well-meaning outsiders and confusing his political opponents, as the country he ruled and ruined sank to depths thought impossible. It took cancer of the prostrate and the advance on Kinshasa of an unknown guerrilla movement to destroy the president, and force him into exile.
For all their differences, Mobutu Sese Seko and Robert Gabriel Mugabe have one thing in common: both men have presided over the corruption of their country's political class, a process which has seen able men and women become members of an amoral, self-serving mafia, whether members of the ruling Zanu-PF, the armed forces or the police.
They are all dizzy worms. Their reactions are unpredictable.
In the meantime can anything be done? Quite a lot, actually.
Zimbabweans need hope like their economy needs good management and the country needs good governance. While the outside world cannot impose a solution on disintegrating society, it can provide an oppressed people with hope for the future.
Let the Commonwealth take the lead, and urgently coordinate a package of preparations for a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.
This would include:
- Emergency aid
Zimbabweans are closer than ever to defying the regime's security forces and manning the barricades. But before they go over the top, they need to know that there is life after the revolution. Hence the importance of a fully-funded post-Mugabe recovery programme, rapidly dispensed, aimed at meeting basic needs: medicine in the clinics and hospitals, books in the classrooms, fertiliser for the farmers, and fuel for the buses. But to ensure there is no back-tracking, the money for this first phase of a recovery programme must be ring-fenced, the donors named and nailed down.
- Bring back the farmers
Work needs to get underway immediately to encourage the return to the region of the commercial farmers and their senior staff. This is not the place and it is not the time to discuss the role they played in creating the disaster that has befallen them. But no country can afford to lose expertise on this scale. Turning the effective expulsion of some 5,000 farmers into a rational land-redistribution programme is a long-term target that a new generation of Zimbabwe's leaders must tackle.
But if the now-scattered skills are not to be lost forever, the farmers must be encouraged to explore opportunities in neighbouring Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. Some are already doing this; but many more might join them - if there was financial backing in the form of a Land Bank, funded by the World Bank, that would underwrite their new ventures and provide the financial security they need.
Also in openDemocracy on Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe:
Novell Zwangendaba, "Those in government"
(18 December 2003)
Netsai Mushonga, "Two nights in Harares police cells"
(5 December 2005)
Andrew Meldrum, "Zimbabwe between past and future"
(23 June 2006)
Conor OLoughlin, "Zimbabwean travails"
(13 September 2006)
Wilf Mbanga, "Happy birthday, Robert Mugabe"
(21 February 2007)
- Prepare for a tourist boom
The rapid recovery of the tourist sector, once a major foreign-exchange earner, will be vital to the economy. Let the international air-carriers work with travel agencies and offer a special Zimbabwe deal - such as a long weekend in Zimbabwe (leaving Thursday night, returning overnight Monday, for no more than cost, for a limited period).
Those who are concerned about the impact of such a seeming indulgence can be reassured: the quicker the Zimbabwe economy recovers, the sooner the environmental damage caused by poverty will end. The destruction of the country's forests will on be reversed when electricity replaces charcoal - and that will only happen when people have decent jobs.
- Enlist the private sector
From the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to AngloAmerican, there is a well of goodwill to be tapped. Encourage business sponsorship of schools and clinics. Support the return of talented exiles, using a computer-based register of Zimbabweans abroad.
- Keep the international development agencies on a very short lead
When Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe in 1980, the international community played the leading role in convening an aid conference. Things have moved on since then, and debate about the merit of aid in its current form has intensified. More than quarter of a century after independence, let Zimbabweans choose their policies, and pick their partners.
The fewer expatriate "experts" are involved in the country's reconstruction the better. As Sir Roy Welensky, prime minister of the ill-fated Central African Federation once said: "I want civil servants who go home every night, not every three years.
- Get ready to celebrate
Prepare to celebrate Zimbabwe's second liberation. Invite Alexander McCall Smith - born and brought up in Rhodesia - to host a literature festival; let Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi and his group The Black Spirits, lead a concert that also features The Bhundu Boys (or what remains of them), MC'd by Andy Kershaw, that showcases Zimbabwe's musical talent. A country that has become synonymous with repression, can become an inspiration, an example of an indomitable spirit.
- Don't waste the euphoria
The joy and relief that will accompany the birth of a new Zimbabwe can all too easily be squandered. In Nigeria, the wounds left by the Biafara war healed much quicker thanks to General Yakubu Gowon's declaration: "no victor, no vanquished."
But in Kenya the enthusiasm that greeted the end of President Daniel arap Moi soon turned to cynicism as corruption continued unabated.
There are lessons for Zimbabwe.
An essential condition
One feature of this package is essential. It must be published as an internationally backed, legally binding, first-phase recovery programme, with irrevocable public commitments to its funding. It should be a document of a few pages, in English, Shona and Ndebele. And it must be distributed in the hundreds of thousands, by airdrop if necessary, so that Zimbabweans can read it, feel it, debate it and draw encouragement from the fact that the world is ready to help.
Who knows? Knowing that the world cares in a practical way might just tip the balance between forced acquiesence and active rebellion.