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Mugabe: The final showdown looms
Christina Lamb, The Sunday Times London
March 25, 2007

POLITICIANS inside and outside Zimbabwe are scrambling to find an exit strategy for President Robert Mugabe amid warnings that the country is on the brink of widespread famine.

The government admitted last week that two-thirds of its maize crop — the country's staple food — has been wiped out by drought. But many fear that the brutality of the past two weeks against opposition activists is distracting international attention from a bigger catastrophe.

"We have the world's greatest humanitarian crisis on our hands," said David Coltart, an MP from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). "We already have the world's lowest life expectancy and highest inflation; imagine on top of that drought? There will be famine."

The warning comes as Mugabe faces unprecedented international condemnation — including criticism from other African leaders for the first time — and opposition within his ruling party, which will meet this week to decide his future.

The main item on the agenda of the Zanu-PF central committee on Thursday is whether Mugabe should run again in presidential elections due next year. His original plan to extend his mandate to 2010 was rejected at the annual party conference in December.

Any such move will be blocked by his deputy Joyce Mujuru, wife of the former army chief General Solomon Mujuru, who many believe is the real power in the country and who fell out with Mugabe over December's conference.

Sources close to the general told The Sunday Times that he will threaten to form a breakaway party if Mugabe insists on standing again.

On Friday Joyce Mujuru held secret talks in Johannesburg with her South African counterpart Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in what appeared to be a warning shot to Mugabe.

Meetings have also taken place between emissaries of Mujuru and those of Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of one of the two MDC factions. Tsvangirai is currently recovering from a savage attack by Mugabe's thugs two weeks ago, which he described as "an orgy of heavy beatings".

The two sides have apparently been discussing forming a transitional government to try to rescue the country from its downward economic spiral that has seen inflation reach 1,700%. It is predicted by the IMF to reach 4,000% by next year.

It would not be the first time that Solomon Mujuru and Tsvangirai had met. The pair come from the two main Shona tribes — Mujuru, like Mugabe, is a Zezuru and Tsvangirai a Karanga — so an alliance between them could avoid ethnic strife.

Although Tsvangirai would not ideally like to ally himself with a military leader, he has always been anxious to avoid bloodshed. His beating, along with that of about 50 MDC activists, has shown the lengths to which Mugabe is prepared to go.

Despite the international outcry at the attack on Tsvangirai, repression has worsened over the past two weeks. There are now unofficial curfews in townships, with people being picked up and beaten at random, and lists at borders of MDC members and journalists. The regime has instructed state hospitals not to admit MDC victims.

One of Mugabe's staunchest critics, Pius Ncube, the Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, exhorted people not to be daunted. "I am ready to stand in front," he said. "We must be ready to stand, even in front of blazing guns. Starvation stalks our land and the government does nothing."

"This is no longer about the MDC and its political aspirations," Coltart said. "We've had a total crop write-off in the south where people were already living on the edge."

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of southern Africa, but this will be the sixth consecutive year of food shortages since Mugabe launched his violent programme of seizing white-owned farms. The World Food Programme is giving food aid to 1.5m people, nearly 10% of the population.

Authorities have consistently attributed the low yields to drought. But critics blame the farm seizures for the sharp decline in agricultural production. Just 100 to 200 white farmers are left on their farms, compared with 4,000 in 2000. Most farms are now in the hands of "cellphone" farmers, ruling party cronies who coveted the farmhouses for weekend getaways and have no real interest in farming.

But this year there is no doubt that southern Zimbabwe has suffered a severe drought. The state television ZBC quoted Rugare Gumbo, the agriculture minister, as admitting that crops in many areas had failed. "The dry spell experienced this season has badly impacted on agriculture. Crops, especially maize, in most parts of the country are a write-off," he said.

He expected a maize harvest of just 600,000 tons — only one third of the minimum annual requirements, and declared 2007 a drought year. With most Zimbabweans already struggling to find one meal a day, aid workers say food shortages will push many over the edge, particularly its 1.6m Aids orphans.

"We're greatly concerned about the increasing pressures on families," said James Elder, of Unicef in Zimbabwe. "Hyperin-flation and another drought are going to mean ever more stress on orphans as they strive to feed and educate themselves." Raymond Majongwe, head of the Progressive Teachers' Union, said recently that an average teacher's salary of Z$200,000 (£5) a month was only enough to buy 4Å bananas a day.

The price of fuel has almost trebled in the past week to Z$14,500 (35p) per litre. Bus drivers in Harare now hike up their prices twice a day, forcing some of those with jobs to quit because they can no longer afford the transport.

It is not clear where the government would find the foreign exchange to import food. Zambia, on which it has previously relied for maize, has announced that it will not export any more because part of its own crop was wiped out.

"If the international community ignores this situation, the rate of economic collapse will escalate, tension will continue to rise and there may well be bloodshed, in fact a bloodbath," Coltart warned.

He claimed that Mugabe's increased use of violence was a sign of desperation. "The attack on Morgan was clearly an own goal," he said. "It has raised Morgan's profile; rather than deter people it has fuelled their momentum and brought the two factions of the MDC together."

He conceded that most Zimbabweans may still be too fearful and weakened by hunger and disease to act, but suggested that desperation could force their hand.

"I believe the regime is already a paper tiger," he said. "The question is when people realise that, because at that moment Mugabe is in real trouble." Pointing out that police salaries were way below poverty level, he explained: "Three years ago when I was stopped at roadblocks I was treated with hostility. Now when I'm stopped, 90% of the time the police ask me when things are going to change."

But whether regime change comes through street agitation or political negotiations, the problem remains of what to do with Mugabe. Not only does the 83-year-old president show no sign of wanting to retire but he has so much blood on his hands that he would be fearful of being put before a UN war crimes tribunal.

Mugabe told a meeting of the Zanu-PF Women's League in Harare on Friday that he had no intention of stepping down. "The opposition is always calling for change, change, change," he said. "I am not pink. I don't want a pink nose. I can't change. I don't want to be European. I want to be African."

"He's like a cornered bull," said a diplomat in Harare. "I fear we are heading for a dark tunnel where things will get worse before they get better."

Both ruling party members fed up with their country's decline and MDC leaders are working to find some kind of exit strategy. "Personally I find it an anathema but for the sake of saving lives we recognise we may well have to agree some form of amnesty," Coltart said.

Anger at 'shrine'
The Zimbabwean government is planning to construct a grandiose monument to Robert Mugabe, commemorating his life and achievements, writes Christina Lamb.

The monument is to be built in his home town of Zvimba and is expected to include a statue.

"The idea has been discussed and we are moving onto the planning stage," Ignatius Chombo, the local government minister, told the ZimOnline news service.

"It would be a shrine for the local community and one that would be used to depict the president's life history and legacy as well as aspects of the liberation struggle."

Unlike other dictators Mugabe has previously eschewed any form of personality cult.

Building a statue, while the country is in an economic crisis so severe that hospitals have no drugs and the government had to stop issuing passports because it could not afford the ink, is likely to provoke an outcry. The site chosen is the size of a football pitch and there have been reports of nearly £200,000 being made available to buy materials from Asia.

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