|The ZIMBABWE Situation||Our
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- may peace, truth and justice prevail.
His own henchmen are now signalling the possible end of Robert Mugabe's tyrannical rule over Zimbabwe, reports Fred Bridgland in Johannesburg
General Vitalis Zvinavashe, supreme commander of Zimbabwe's army and air force, signalled the end for 78-year-old Mugabe when he said it was necessary to admit the country was in crisis. He then said it was up to politicians to solve the crisis, before adding ominously: 'The military is ready to assist if given the mandate to do so. It is not right to keep quiet and let nature take its course.'
In the context of the Zimbabwean disaster, this is the political equivalent of a soccer team manager being warned, in the shape of a vote of confidence from his chairman, of his impending sacking. Zvinavashe's remarks to trusted Zimbabwean newsmen follow confirmed reports of his approach to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai outlining a plan for Mugabe to step down and go into exile with a guarantee of immunity from prosecution for human rights abuses.
Zvinavashe, until recently a supreme Mugabe loyalist, clearly sees that the inevitable further deterioration in Zimbabwe's dire predicament threatens to bring down all the president's cronies as well as the boss himself.
The current yearly decline of 10% in GDP, 200% inflation , 70% unemployment, 7.2 million people facing starvation, and near-zero farm production are all unsustainable, especially when allied to Mugabe's cat's cradle of repressive laws.
The Zvinavashe strategy was launched just before Christmas when he sent his former colleague, retired Colonel Lionel Dyck, to run a proposal past Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which lost presidential and parliamentary elections to Mugabe last year in a heavily rigged poll.
University of Zimbabwe law professor Lovemore Madhuku said: 'It does say a lot when top soldiers, who are the greatest beneficiaries of Mugabe's corrupt patronage, start admitting that things are indeed bad. It also confirms that denied reports about initiatives within Zanu-PF to oust Mugabe are not completely unfounded.'
Zvinavashe has tried to deny making moves to negotiate an end to Mugabe's rule, but the reports are too well sourced, detailed and widespread for the armed forces chief to be able to distance himself effectively from Mugabe's own vigorous denials that he will step down.
Confirming that Colonel Dyck had met him on behalf of General Zvinavashe, Tsvangirai said he indicated he was willing to begin negotiations on the Zvinavashe plan. This would allow Mugabe free passage with his family to live in a country of his choice. An interim government would then be formed, pending fresh elections, with Emmerson Mnangagwa, speaker of the p arliament, as president and Tsvangirai as vice- president.
It is not a deal Tsvangirai will accept. It would leave both Mnangagwa, a hardman who was Mugabe's intelligence chief, and the ruthless and deeply corrupt Zvinavashe with too much power.
'I made it clear that we [the MDC] will never be party to any political arrangement that seeks to sanitise Mugabe's violent illegitimacy, and that includes Mugabe's retirement plans and the so-called government of national unity.
'Mr Mugabe's lieutenants have all virtually abandoned him and maintain an appearance of loyalty out of fear. The machinery around Mugabe is now collapsing fast and leaking help.'
South African President Thabo Mbeki has been trying to persuade Tsvangirai to serve in a government of national unity with Mugabe's Zanu-PF . But Tsvangirai asserts that only new, inter nationally supervised elections can decide who rules a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.
How Mugabe will act following revelations of the Zvinavashe initiative to ease him into exile can only be guessed. But he is at his most besieged and vulnerable since he came to power in 1980 at independence, having openly admitted his administration's failure to cope with disastrous food and fuel shortages.
'Although he has raped it, the economy continues to land fatal blows that Mugabe cannot block,' said Tsvangirai. Staple foods such as maize flour, sugar and salt have disappeared from shops, mainly as a result of severe shortages but also because Mugabe has fixed selling prices below production costs.
In the economic meltdown achieved by Mugabe's pursuit of Kampuchean-style socialism, toothpaste was selling last week at the equivalent of £15 a tube and car tyres for £350 each. While Tsvangirai must want to be rid of Mugabe peacefully, he has plenty of reasons to be deeply wary of Zvinavashe, who has taken several white farms for himself in the course of his patron's 'land reform' programme.
Human Rights Watch has also iden tified Zvinavashe as a multi-millionaire beneficiary of the Zimbabwe military's adventure in the Congo. He formed a company which sold and transported goods, including uniforms, to his own troops. Zvinavashe was also a director of a company, Operation Sovereign Legit imacy, that was given lucrative diamond, gold, cobalt and copper mining contracts in the Congo. Unless he can do a favourable deal now, Zvinavashe is certain to face trial for corruption and human rights offences under a future democratic Zimbabwean government.
Meanwhile, the Zimbabwean police, the official protectors of the England cricket team when they play a World Cup match against Zimbabwe in Harare next month, have signalled that they will deal ruthlessly with demonstrators.
'Those who hold illegal demonstrations will be dealt with thoroughly,' said police spokesman Andrew Phiri. Opposition MDC MP Job Sikhala was dealt with 'thoroughly' by the police last week when he was arrested for attending a banned rally. Before being released on bail, Sikhala was tortured by having electric terminals attached to his genitals. He was then clubbed before being urinated on and forced to sign a document saying the MDC planned an uprising against Mugabe.
England's cricket tour may yet be cancelled. Two leading cricket personalities have refused in the past week to visit Zimbabwe in protest against Mugabe's repression . The BBC cricket and soccer commentator Pat Murphy has refused to go to Harare on principle, and a South African wicketkeeper has refused to join the South African cricket 'A' team tour .
There is a distinct possibility the Zimbabwe crisis will come to a head when South African President Thabo Mbeki visits Britain at the end of this month. Mbeki wants British investment for his grand development designs but who has refused to condemn Mugabe's policies in Zimbabwe. He may find little sympathy unless he begins to act against his dictatorial neighbour who depends on South Africa for electricity and supplies .