LONDON — It will take a while yet, but the long and brutal reign of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is probably nearing its end. Not because of the democratic opposition at home, whose members are regularly beaten up and sometimes killed by the regime’s police. Not even because neighboring countries in southern Africa are at last putting pressure on Mugabe to go. Just because his own partners-in-crime have decided that it’s him or them.
The key moment actually came last December, when for the first time the senior ranks of the ruling Zanu-PF Party stood up to Mugabe and refused to accept his proposal to postpone the next presidential election from 2008 to 2010. It was typical Mugabe salami tactics — give me two more years, and maybe I’ll decide to resign in 2010 — but this time it didn’t work.
In that case, said Mugabe, I’ll run for president again in 2008 (which would keep him in the presidency for his 90th birthday in 2014). Given the speed with which Zimbabwe’s economy is collapsing and its population fleeing abroad, seven more years of Mugabe and it will not be worth inheriting power there — so Mugabe’s potential heirs within Zanu-PF itself have begun to rebel.
All that has followed — the vicious assaults of opposition leaders by Mugabe’s police in mid-February, the South African government’s decision to start talking to Mugabe’s Zanu-PF rivals and Zimbabwean opposition leaders, and the emergency meeting of the leaders of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Tanzania on March 28 — is a response to this new perception that Mugabe doesn’t have long to run.
“I have been to these SADC summits and I know that behind closed doors they are brutally frank,” Mugabe’s former information minister, Jonathan Moyo, told “The Guardian” last week. “They will remind Mugabe that he told them he would retire at the end of his term in 2008. . . They will tell Mugabe that his rule in Zimbabwe is dragging down the whole southern African region.” None of that got into the meeting’s closing communique, which ritually expressed solidarity with Mugabe, but Moyo is probably right, because Zimbabwe is becoming a blight on the region.
Inflation in Zimbabwe, at 1,700 percent, is the highest in the world (the next highest, Myanmar, is only 60 percent), and average income is less than a 10th of South Africa’s. Ten years ago Zimbabwe was seen as the breadbasket of Africa, and it earned ample foreign exchange from exports of tobacco and other cash crops; now it cannot feed half its people, and the tobacco crop is down by four-fifths.
There are an estimated three million Zimbabwean economic refugees in South Africa (two-thirds of the country’s working-age population), and they are the main support of those left at home, because unemployment in Zimbabwe is 80 percent or more. Zimbabwean life expectancy is now the lowest in the world: 37 for men, 34 for women.
Then there is the unbridled brutality of the police force, the official contempt for the law, the propaganda that blames all the failings of the regime on foreign imperialists plotting against it — it’s not exactly the image that southern Africans want for their region.
On the whole, southern Africa does not fit that image. From South Africa to Tanzania, most of the governments in the SADC are democratically elected and law-abiding. Most economies are showing good growth, and nobody is starving. But it is a well-known fact that people in other continents have difficulty in telling one African country from another, and that investors are the most ignorant of all. Zimbabwe’s multiple failures take up more space in the international media than all news about all 13 other members of the SADC combined, and so the neighbors’ patience has run out.
In fact, it ran out some time ago, but being realists about the nature of politics in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, the other SADC leaders saw no point in publicly demanding change. Now, however, there is blood in the water. Mugabe managed to bully Zanu-PF’s central committee into nominating him for the presidency again on March 30, but everybody knows that two major factions in the party want him to quit. That has opened the door for others to demand change as well.
The main contenders for the succession are not without sin. Emmerson Mnangagwa was state security minister when 25,000 members of the minority Ndebele tribe were murdered by the regime in the 1980s for supporting the wrong political party. Vice President Joice Mujuru is the wife of Solomon Mujuru, a former army chief who became very rich thanks to his involvement in illegal land-grabs during the seizure of all the farms owned by white Zimbabweans.
The ideal outcome would be an alliance between Zanu-PF dissidents and Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition in a transitional government leading to free, internationally supervised elections. The reality may be a good deal messier, because the Old Man doesn’t know how to let go. He has just imported 3,000 “security personnel” from Angola to stiffen his own police, who are deserting in droves and going to work in South Africa as security guards because inflation has made their wages in Zimbabwe almost worthless.
But one way or another, Mugabe’s long misrule has reached the beginning of the end.