- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

JOHANNESBURG Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe sought yesterday to end talk that he was considering early retirement, telling a skeptical nation that it would be "foolhardy" for him to step down just months after a fiercely contested election.
But talk of a secret deal reverberated in his capital, Harare, where opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai told news organizations during the weekend that he had been approached by the president's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party about participating in a post-Mugabe government.
Speaking in Zambia, where he attended a ceremony to honor former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, Mr. Mugabe said, "It would be absolutely counterrevolutionary and foolhardy for me to step down" at this time.
He insisted that exile was not an option, saying, "I fought for Zimbabwe, and when I die I will be buried in Zimbabwe, nowhere else."
The remarks failed to quiet the speculation in Harare, where political scientist Brian Raftopoulos of Harare University described the reports of a deal as "a glimmer of hope."
"My own view is the offer could not have been made without Mugabe's knowledge, and it is the beginning of a process," he told the Associated Press.
If Mr. Mugabe holds on to the presidency, some of his critics say, it may be too dangerous for him to stay in Zimbabwe because of the large number of people who have been mistreated under his 23-year rule.
It is more likely, they say, that Mr. Mugabe would take his estimated fortune of up to $100 million and seek a comfortable exile in Malaysia where much of his money is said to be deposited or some other sympathetic country such as Libya, Cuba or North Korea.
The president's security concerns are illustrated by the nearly mile-long motorcade that accompanies him when he travels several times a year to his hometown of Zvimba, about 50 miles northeast of Harare.
Armed motorcyclists lead the way, and troop-carrying vehicles flank the president's customized Mercedes Benz S600 Pullman, armor-plated by the German company Cloer International to the highest specifications.
The vehicle arrived in Zimbabwe in April along with armored trucks for the motorcade plus a Mercedes for each of Mr. Mugabe's two vice presidents, all at a total price of more than $4 million.
"It's not just Zvimba; he can't stay in Zimbabwe," said Patricia Katsande, a mother of three who in September had to flee the town of Karoi, 100 miles north of Harare.
Mr. Mugabe's militia beat her and broke her 9-year-old son's leg because she and her family had not attended a meeting of the ZANU-PF two miles from their home.
Such violence had intensified since Mr. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change emerged in 2000 as a serious challenger to the president's rule.
"My story is one of thousands, hundreds of thousands," Mrs. Katsande said at the family's new home, a single room in one of the black commuter suburbs near Johannesburg.
"I am a widow, and they beat me and hit my son with an iron bar when he tried to protect me. And all for the crime of not attending a meeting. I will never forgive them for that, not Mr. Mugabe, not one of his thugs. They must be tried when Mr. Mugabe loses power, or the people will kill them."
Not everyone believes Mr. Mugabe would be at risk in his hometown.
"People talk, but no one would take any action against the old man," said James Chikerema, 77, a pioneer of Zimbabwe's independence struggle who now believes Mr. Mugabe has lost the confidence of the people.
"If he wanted to retire, he could go to Zvimba or even stay in town and mingle with people while he does his shopping," he said by telephone from Harare. "He could live like any other person."
Mr. Mugabe does not live like the average Zimbabwean. While the people line up for gas, bread and cooking oil, he and his wife, known as Comrade Grace, 38, have their groceries flown in from London.
The London Financial Times estimated in February that Mr. Mugabe could own foreign assets, including cash and property, worth as much as $100 million, some of which came from mineral concessions in Congo.
The United States, Canada, Britain, the European Union and Australia have acted to freeze any assets Mr. Mugabe and his ministers may own in those countries. While some senior members of ZANU-PF have had their accounts blocked, Mr. Mugabe is said to keep his money in Malaysia.
Mr. Mugabe is a regular visitor to South Africa, but Jay Jay Sibanda, who heads a lobby group of black Zimbabwean exiles, said it would be difficult for him to settle here.
"Have you ever noticed that Mr. Mugabe and his ministers don't advertise their trips to South Africa?" he asked. "That is because they fear their own people who now live here."
Mr. Sibanda said his group would not condone vigilante action against Mr. Mugabe or his ministers.
Still, he said, "People are hurting. Many have been forced to flee Zimbabwe under traumatic circumstances. A lot have been tortured and, in truth, I think it would be hard for anyone to guarantee Mr. Mugabe's safety in South Africa.
"If a future government supplied him with armed protection, he might be safer in Zvimba."


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