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Zimbabwe: the endless endgame

It’ not very often that I find myself siding with Condoleeaza Rice. But she’s right – it’s embarrasing that the African continent’s leaders haven’t put more pressure on Robert Mugabe to step down… or at least to release election results.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, in particular, no longer looks like a fair broker in this process – continued delay looks to strengthen Mugabe’s hand and weaken Tsvangarai’s. As MDC faction leader Arthur Mutambara argued in his letter issued to celebrate Zimbabwe’s independence, “What does Mugabe need to execute his evil strategy? Just a one word answer would do: Time.” As long as Mbeki continues to insist that there’s no crisis in Zimbabwe, there’s less pressure on Mugabe, and ZANU-PF gets the time to challenge parliamentary seats, to attempt a more effective rigging of run-off elections, to portray the first round of elections as incomplete and incompetently run.

That Zimbabwe hasn’t seen violence or widespread protest gives Mugabe time as well. Had Zimbabweans responded to failure to call the election by taking to the streets, that might have strengthened MDC’s hand – the failed strike of earlier this week sends a message that the population is (understandably) tired and scared, and may not be willing to rise up should election results not be honored.

An editorial in the Christian Science Monitor asks, “Can’t he see it? Can’t Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s strongman, see that the jig is up – if not today, then in the not-too-distant future?” That strikes me as seriously naïve – at this point, the holdup is likely more about senior ZANU-PF officials and less about Mugabe himself. Even if Mugabe accepted Tsvangarai’s assurances that he’d be allowed to remain in Zimbabwe, unprosecuted, for the remainder of his life, it’s likely that many of his senior officials understand that a new government means the end of perks, salaries and protections from prosecution. Media often overfocuses on charismatic leaders, and ignores the more complex story – I suspect that’s the case with speculation about Mugabe’s personal ego and pride in relation to this situation.

With this in mind, it was particularly interesting to hear Patrick Chinamasa – former Justice minister, who lost his seat in the recent poll – accuse Morgan Tsvangarai of treason for attempting to “overthrow” the government with British collusion. Treason is a capital crime in Zimbabwe – should Chinamasa attempt to prosecute Tsvangarai for the “crime” of standing against Mugabe in an election, it could create a scenario where Tsvangarai wouldn’t be willing to return to the country.

These accusations, in turn, shackle the UK from calling more strenuously for intervention. As a former colonial power, any possible threats of interference get spun into accusations of a return to colonialism. It would have been difficult for the UK or the US to put pressure on South Africa to block a controversial shipment of arms to the government without inviting more critique of Anglo-American meddling… and, as the South African government has pointed out, there’s no trade embargo against Zimbabwe preventing the shipment from going through.

It’s hard for Britain to criticize Mugabe without being dismissed… but Mbeki, as a fellow leader who’s fought for black rule of the African continent, would carry much more weight with a critique. Let’s hope that Mbeki – who finally decided today to urge the release of election results – will show some spine.

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