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Zimbabwe between past and future

About the author
Andrew Meldrum now lives in Pretoria after being exiled from Zimbabwe and reports for the Guardian on Southern Africa.

The news from Zimbabwe is not encouraging. Robert Mugabe remains firmly entrenched in power, ruthlessly stifling all perceived dissent. In a police graduation parade in Harare on 22 June 2006, he inveighed in classic style against his favoured enemies: "The local forces of negation who claim to be champions of democracy while, in fact, they are willing conduits of violence and the vilification propagated by the west should not be allowed to ride roughshod over our people."

On the surface it appears that Mugabe's power is unquestioned and that the situation in Zimbabwe, both political and economic, will continue to deteriorate. The opposition is in disarray, weakened by the acrimonious split in 2005 of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The decline of an economy already ramshackle after years of corruption, mismanagement, and centralisation is relentless. The people of Zimbabwe are suffering more than ever. Shortages of food, fuel, electricity and water have made life in the cities a trial. Survival is even more difficult in the rural areas where the government has failed to distribute adequate food aid. Chronic malnutrition now stalks the land once known as "the breadbasket of southern Africa".

The prospects for improvement in the livelihoods and freedoms of Zimbabwe's overburdened people appear bleak. But behind the facade of unthreatened power Mugabe is facing growing challenges, from inside as well as outside his party. This is a time when firm international pressure could help to bring positive change to Zimbabwe.

Andrew Meldrum lived and worked as a journalist in Zimbabwe from 1980 to 2003, when Robert Mugabe's government expelled him. He is now based in Pretoria, and reports for the Guardian on Zimbabwe and southern Africa. He is the author of Where We Have Hope: A Memoir of Zimbabwe (John Murray, 2004)

Also by Andrew Meldrum in openDemocracy:

"Who won Zimbabwe's election?" (April 2005)

"A glimmer of change in Zimbabwe"
(December 2005)

A ruined country

Robert Mugabe, now 82, has been Zimbabwe's only president since the country gained its new identity (and name) in 1980, when – following a bitter liberation struggle and international negotiations to prepare a new constitution and free elections – white-ruled "Rhodesia" was consigned to history. Mugabe has shown no readiness to leave power after twenty-six years, and indeed he has stated clearly his intention to stay in office until his current term expires in 2008.

But even that lengthy reign will not be sufficient to satisfy Mugabe's ambition. The president has taken steps to extend his current term for a further two years by instructing justice minister Patrick Chinamasa to draft a constitutional amendment to postpone the presidential elections for two years until 2010. The pretext is that the presidential and parliamentary elections (due in 2010) should be held simultaneously to save money.

Despite Zimbabwe's precipitous economic decline, which has seen the GDP contract by 40% over the past seven years, Mugabe is stubbornly sticking to his peculiar brand of centrally-controlled economic management. Most recently he has decided to print money to pay off Zimbabwe's arrears to the International Monetary Fund and more to pay salary increases to the army and civil service. This has fuelled an inflation rate of 1,200%, the world's highest.

Although Mugabe's single-minded drive to maintain his iron-fisted rule has served him well over the years, his inflexibility and lack of regard for the effects of his ruinous policies on the majority of Zimbabweans are sowing the seeds for future challenges to his rule.

Mugabe's refusal to step down has frustrated many cabinet ministers and other leaders of his Zanu-PF party. Whether Mugabe likes it or not, the party's barons are jostling for position to succeed him and the party is riven with bitter rivalries and enmities.

The current frontrunner in the shadowy succession race is joint vice-president Joyce Mujuru, who is backed by her powerful and astute husband, retired army commander Solomon Mujuru. But the imminent retirement of the other vice-president Joseph Msika, an ailing 82-year-old, is expected to set off a new round of battles within the party.

The split of the MDC, over the issue of whether or not to contest the senate elections in November 2005, has left both sides weaker than when they stood together. Even worse, the two sides – the larger faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai, and the smaller headed by Arthur Mutambara – appear more intent on attacking each other publicly than in putting forward alternatives to Mugabe's rule.

Morgan Tsvangirai retained the largest following of the party and had vowed to lead his side in mass resistance. But he has failed in the past to rally public demonstrations against Mugabe and yet again it appears he has sidetracked the possibility of mass protests.

Instead, Tsvangirai put forward a "roadmap for Zimbabwe" on 9 June 2006 in which he called for negotiations for a new constitution leading to free and fair elections; rather than the "violent toppling" of the Zimbabwean government. Tsvangirai said he wanted "people to be able to exercise their democratic right to express their discontent".

The fractured opposition has added to the instability of the political status quo by making it possible for splinter groups or individuals to form new coalitions, particularly with any breakaways from Zanu-PF. Jonathan Moyo, the former information minister and Mugabe ally, is one such free agent who could team up with others to cause problems for Mugabe.

The greatest threat to Mugabe, however, is the accelerating decline of the economy rather than the political opposition. Unemployment is estimated at more than 70% and living standards have dropped drastically. More than 70% of the population is living below the poverty line, according to the United Nations – a considerable increase from the figure of just over 30% in 2000.

Zimbabwe's economic implosion is unprecedented for a country not at war. Mugabe's policies, including his lawless seizure of white-owned farms, have caused as much damage as wartime destruction of key infrastructure. This is making more and more people desperate.

In early June 2006, Mugabe was worried about the possibility of mass demonstrations against his government to mark the first anniversary of his Operation Murambatsvina ("drive out the rubbish") – the housing demolitions which left 700,000 people homeless or jobless. The president was so concerned that he put the army and police on alert to suppress any possible demonstration.

The Zimbabwean leader increasingly relies upon the loyalty of the security services and has put generals and other top officers at the head of major state bodies. But the rank-and-file soldiers and police have also felt the bite of economic decline and are growing restive. In an emergency, Mugabe's forces on the ground could precipitate a crisis by refusing to attack angry protestors who have nothing more to lose.

Among openDemocracy's articles about Zimbabwe's political, social and human travails:

Emily Barroso, "A Zimbabwean life"
(April 2005)

Bev Clark, "Mass evictions in Zimbabwe"
(June 2005)

Wilf Mbanga, "The end of Mugabe?"
(October 2005)

Wilf Mbanga, "Zimbabwe's election blues"
(November 2005)

Netsai Mushonga, "Two nights in Harare's police cells" (November 2005)

A strategic moment

Zimbabwe's situation, then, is more unsettled than it appears. This represents a strategic moment for United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan to attempt to find a resolution to the country's crisis. In different ways, South African president Thabo Mbeki and British prime minister Tony Blair have previously tried and failed to influence Mugabe. But Annan – who is likely to meet Mugabe during the African Union summit in Banjul, Gambia (25 June-1 July) – carries with him his stature as Africa's leading statesman as well as the prestige of his global organisation. Moreover, Annan's term as head of the UN is due to expire at the end of 2006, and he would like to crown his tenure with a breakthrough settlement of Zimbabwe's crisis.

Annan's plan centres on persuading Mugabe to agree to a date to step down from office in return for a large package of humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe. It also envisages a transition of power that leads to free and fair elections. In this, it is consistent with Tsvangirai's campaign as well as offering a route that many of Zimbabwe's hard-pressed civil-society activists could endorse.

It will not be easy to achieve a solution that will restore Zimbabwe's democracy and return the country to prosperity. But time is not on Robert Mugabe's side. Kofi Annan's quiet but insistent application of pressure, alongside the internal tensions of a society and economy near the end of its tether, makes it crucial that the international community – particularly the European Union – remains firm in its own demands for change.

Robert Mugabe still rules over his wasted country. But he is beset by a squabbling party, a collapsing economy, a restive population and international pressure. He may soon find that things spin out of his control and Zimbabwe will be on the path back to democracy.

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