- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Robert Mugabe gave me a long interview in early 1980. He was the brightest and most impressive politician I had met in Africa. He preached reconciliation with his enemies. Now, in Zimbabwe, he is reviled as a murderous tyrant. The idea that absolute power over 28 years, plus senility, has caused him eventually to become demented is not convincing. Mr. Mugabe’s utterly sober and single-minded determination and ruthlessness have always been marks of his character. He was a tough guerrilla leader in his liberation war. After independence from Britain in April 1980, he wiped out his tribal opposition in Matabeleland, killing more than 10,000 people in the first years of his rule.

Britain’s rebel colony, Rhodesia, was killed off by war, sanctions and Whitehall diplomacy, but Mr. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe has committed suicide. Rarely in modern history has a state been so mismanaged.

Some African leaders have stood by him out of a misplaced sense of solidarity, including South African President Thabo Mbeki, who holds the economic levers. Then the recent ascendancy of Jacob Zuma, Mr. Mbeki’s archrival, spawned a change in the ruling African National Congress. The trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of Zimbabwe’s main opposition, became a much more attractive option.

Until very recently the South African government has refused to condemn Mr. Mugabe. Mr. Mbeki, who played an insignificant role in his own country’s liberation, has been lambasted for deferring to Mr. Mugabe, who is still revered on the continent for his part in the anti-colonial struggle. But the recent killing of 22 foreigners, mainly Zimbabweans, in a wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa is blamed on Mr. Mbeki’s failed policies. Nearly 3 million Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa.

Destroying one’s country by poor policies is not a crime - otherwise half the continent’s leaders would end up in the dock. But crimes against humanity, especially the genocide in Matabeleland, are different. In theory, the International Criminal Court could try Mr. Mugabe for numerous crimes committed after 2002.

But the endgame will be political, not legal. Transition and reconstruction have to come before retribution or justice. The African Union, and many in the South African government, have finally had enough of Mr. Mugabe’s antics. The survival, however, of Mr. Mugabe’s revolutionary ZANU-PF party is important to the similar parties which rule not just in South Africa, but also in Angola and Mozambique. An electoral victory by Mr. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which does not base its credentials on the anti-colonial struggle, would lead to a questioning of the dominant political structures in the whole region.

The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee, believes conditions are too violent for a proper election. He has roundly condemned the attacks on supporters of Mr. Tsvangirai.

Nevertheless, Mr. Mbeki will try to finesse the survival of ZANU-PF as the ruling party. By rigging and violence, Mr. Mugabe will win the second round of the presidential elections, which are scheduled for June 27. Mr. Mugabe may be persuaded to accept the role of ceremonial president (which was the norm in Rhodesia and the early years of Zimbabwe). A current ZANU-PF politician, or even possibly the South African favorite, Simba Makoni, who stood as an independent presidential candidate, might become prime minister. Mr. Tsvangirai, the real winner of the last election in March against all the odds, may be co-opted as deputy president or deputy prime minister.

A government of national unity will be formed by South African pressure. It will either be a double-decker duplication of ministries, as in Kenya, or a shotgun wedding as ZANU-PF swallows the MDC, as happened in the 1980s when Mr. Mugabe forced his main rival, Joshua Nkomo, to surrender to him.

Mr. Mugabe will be shunted off to enjoy a quiet retirement in his new mansion outside Harare. Only then can rebuilding Zimbabwe begin. With generous international aid, and a lot of luck, it might take Zimbabwe 20 or 30 years to get back to the economic levels at independence in 1980.

What role should the West play? Although Britain provides extensive humanitarian aid, it is the main scapegoat for Mr. Mugabe’s tirades, so London has to tread carefully. The British army provided a core component in the small Commonwealth force which helped to broker the cease-fire at the end of 1979, and a small British training team helped to avoid civil war in 1980-81 and supervised the merger of the colonial forces with the two main guerrilla armies. But the United States could play a vital role in the reconstruction.

Mr. Tsvangirai has called for international observers and possibly a monitoring force in the second round of elections. And it is not impossible that South Africa could veto Mr. Mugabe’s objections to a U.N. or even Commonwealth force. Zimbabwe under a new ruler would want to return to the Commonwealth, so a very low-key Western military observer presence might be a part, if not of the forthcoming elections, then later as part of a new transitional administration. Both the United States and the United Kingdom could play a major role in retraining the corrupt, vicious security and police structure.

Zimbabwe could still erupt in nationwide violence on the Kenyan model, or worse. Or South Africa, and perhaps even China, might be able to enforce a relatively peaceful, if still stage-managed, fresh election. Nevertheless, the manner of Mr. Mugabe’s departure might yet disgrace the whole continent.

Paul Moorcraft is director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis in London.

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