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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 11:12 GMT
Time running out for Mugabe?

By Joseph Winter
BBC News Online

Reports of Robert Mugabe's political demise have been greatly exaggerated on numerous occasions.

As the situation in Zimbabwe has gone from bad to worse to disastrous in recent years, Harare has been rife with rumours that he will shortly be leaving office, either due to ill-health or political pressure.

Robert Mugabe
Is Mugabe looking for a way out?
So far, he has outlived many of the rumour-mongers.

But he cannot carry on for ever.

The government now admits that serious action is needed to revive the economy.

Annual inflation is running at more than 500%, three-quarters of Zimbabweans do not have a job and half the population needs food aid.

The government has tried to improve living standards by controlling prices but this has only led to shortages and black markets for everything from foreign currency and fuel to sugar, cooking oil and the staple food, maize meal.

So now the authorities are looking for alternatives.

Strong hints

But until the political stand-off is ended, few businessmen or women will feel confident enough to make the investments needed to kick-start the economy.

Mr Mugabe has for the first time mentioned the possibility of his retirement.

ZIMBABWE CRISIS
Man with bundle of cash
Six million need food aid
Shortages of petrol, bread, sugar
500% Inflation
Opposition complains of persecution
They reject last year's elections

He pointedly said that his land reform programme was now complete.

He has previously said that he wanted to remain in power until he had redistributed Zimbabwe's farms from whites to blacks.

Just a few hundred white farmers now remain on the land, from some 4,000 in 2000.

For the first time, he also raised the possibility of meeting opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai - a man he usually dismisses as a "sell-out" and "British stooge".

Government spokesmen insist that Mr Mugabe, 79, has no intention of stepping down until the next elections, due in 2007, but these denials have not silenced the speculation.

Pole position

Reading between the lines, it seems that Mr Mugabe may well be looking for a way out.

So what comes next?

President Mugabe must not step down... because he is the choice of the people of Zimbabwe
Majur M, USA

African leaders, who have been unwilling to openly criticise Mr Mugabe, say they just want to get his Zanu-PF party to talk to Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Both sides say they are keen to resume talks, which were suspended last year.

But Mr Mugabe wants the opposition to first recognise his 2002 re-election.

This could be an attempt to put Zanu-PF in pole position when it comes to choosing his successor.

Peaceful retirement

Alternatively, Mr Mugabe may be trying to bring the MDC into a Zanu-PF dominated government of national unity.

The MDC has strong support from both the international community and Zimbabwe's business sector.

Morgan Tsvangirai (l) and Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa (r)
Talks between the MDC and government broke up last year

Their recognition of his government may be enough to restore some confidence in the economy.

But the MDC insists that Mr Mugabe step down and then a transitional government, with it as an equal partner, be established to oversee new elections.

Mr Mugabe would presumably prefer to hand over power to a chosen successor from within his own party who would guarantee him a peaceful retirement.

Mr Tsvangirai has promised that the man who led Zimbabwe to independence in 1980 would enjoy immunity for any crimes he may have committed in recent years.

But this does not seem to be enough for Mr Mugabe.

Or maybe it is not enough for his Zanu-PF lieutenants who have been waiting for many years for their turn in the sun.

These are the issues which will come up if and when dialogue between Zanu-PF and the MDC does eventually start.

Until these political questions are solved, the economy will continue to worsen, making life even more difficult for the ordinary Zimbabweans both sides claim to represent.




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