Zimbabwe's self-declared president Robert Gabriel Mugabe has long been a lonely figure. He has no known friends; his marriage to a wife half is age is reported to be rocky; he's a disappointment to the white priests who raised him and an embarrassment to British and American leaders who once publicly admired him. Now he has suffered another comedown: on Monday, he finally agreed to discuss a political settlement with Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition candidate who bested him in the first round of a presidential election and then sat out the second. Mugabe even shook hands with the bitter enemy he had long dismissed as a "teaboy" for the British, before they sat down to sign an agreement to negotiate.
How much longer can the 84-year-old Mugabe stay in office? And perhaps more pertinently, will it be his own generals who finally push him out? By some accounts, Mugabe is ready to step down. Diplomats and well-connected observers in Harare say that he'd had enough when it became clear that Tsvangirai had won the most ballots in the bitterly contested March 29 poll.
While his government delayed announcing the results showing Tsvangirai as the number one vote getter, on the Monday after the vote Mugabe convened his top aides, the five generals and two civilians who make up the Joint Operations Centre (JOC)-a military-style command center that ran his election campaign--and told them he planned to retire to Malaysia, where he maintains a second home. The diplomats' accounts were confirmed by a high-ranking ZANU-PF party official. "They said, 'Hold on, you're not leaving us, we're in this together,'" the official related. "These people said to him, No,' said a well-informed diplomat in Harare, the capital, 'because we'll win the runoff for you.' Mugabe is still the first among equals, but he can no longer rule this country without the army, the civil service has collapsed. There has been a coup by stealth."
These sources believe that Mugabe will remain in power for a face-saving interval, while negotiations for a government of national unity go ahead under the auspices of South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki. After that, Mugabe would hand over to one of the JOC members. Those talks were due to begin formally today, in South Africa, to be completed within two weeks. They promise a respite from the violence that has continued to plague Zimbabwe even after the June 27th runoff election, as ZANU-PF militants backed up by the security services continued to attack opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) activists and party workers, forcing most of them to flee or go into hiding. That, in turn, strengthened the regime's bargaining power, potentially enabling Mugabe's ZANU-PF to take control of the parliament, where the MDC now has a slim majority.
Under a constitutional change Mugabe forced through last year, the parliament can elect a successor if the president leaves office for any reason. This allows the generals to choose one of their own, who some think would most likely be the head of the JOC, Emmerson Mnangagwa. "As the JOC head, Mnangagwa is actually in charge now," says Ray Matikinye, news editor of the Financial Gazette, one of the few remaining independent papers in Zimbabwe. "He has the respect and control of the police and military." Matikinye, too, has heard the stories that the JOC refused to let Mugabe step aside.
Since the run-off farce, Mugabe's bitterness has been on abundant, if somewhat incompetent, display. At an African Union summit in Egypt last month, he lashed out at a British reporter, at one point seeming to lunge at him when he asked how Mugabe claimed the right to represent Zimbabwe as its president. Flustered, he responded that he had "as much right as [Britain's] Gordon Brown does to be prime minister of Zimbabwe."
But Mugabe left stung by criticism from fellow African leaders, who were unmoved by his finger-pointing accusations that many of them had less-than-stellar democratic credentials themselves. And while Zimbabwe's government mouthpiece, the Herald, reported that Mugabe was relieved to have Queen Elizabeth strip him of the knighthood she had given him decades earlier, the fact was he could have renounced it at any time. (A spokesman for the Foreign Office in London said he has still not complied with an official request to return the Grand Cross of the Illustrious Order of the Bath, which is the emblem of his knighthood).
"I suspect that under Mugabe's hatred for the British is a love for the British," says Heidi Holland, author of a recent biography, "Dinner with Mugabe." "When he talked to me about the British royal family he had tears in his eyes."
The trappings of British culture are easy to find in Zimbabwe, where school children wear uniforms with short pants and knee socks, judges sport powdered white wigs and cricket grounds abound. And despite his bitter statements about Britain, Mugabe clearly admires many facets of his country's former colonial rulers. Before he and his top officials were banned by European sanctions from visiting Britain, Mugabe frequented London's Savile Row for handmade suits and the finest accessories. And even now, he takes a high tea in the State House, including crustless cucumber sandwiches served on expensive china. "He's an Anglophile, profoundly so," says a Western diplomat. "His anger is the savagery of a child rejected, an Anglophile rejected."
Whatever his psychological issues from the past, Mugabe ran his last election campaign by harking back to his days as a liberation leader. His bon mots were increasingly outrageous. "The gun is more powerful than the ball point," he said. And since God put him in office, he said, "only God can remove me." A life-long practicing Catholic, Mugabe is also a committed Marxist--though he could never persuade his ZANU-PF party to institute a Communist-style regime. Tsvangirai says the entire campaign smacked of Mugabe's formative period. "It's back to the guerrilla war years," he said.
Central in Mugabe's campaign was the JOC, an organization that had little formal role in previous years but was geared up into an efficient apparatus for campaign terror. The JOC directly funded ZANU-PF youth militias, 30,000 strong, coordinating their activities with police and military and sending them out on punitive expeditions against opposition politicians -- especially in the second, run-off round. The MDC says more than 100 of its activists were killed in the violence and thousands more savagely beaten; a common tactic was to flail the skin off a victim's buttocks and then pour scalding water on the wounds. Tsvangirai said he pulled out of the election to stop the violence, and because it was clear most voters were too intimidated to vote for him. Mugabe won by a landslide, even in areas that were traditionally opposition strongholds.
However, giving the JOC such centralized power may in the end prove to have been Mugabe's undoing. "Everyone should stop focusing so much on Mugabe, because it's the JOC, the JOC is the key," says John Makumbe, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe, who says he talks frequently to high-ranking regime officials. "Instead of Mugabe's face on CNN and BBC, we should be seeing the faces of the [seven] leaders of the JOC. Mugabe is in fact a puppet of the security structures, the creature of the violence, as much a victim of their campaign as the MDC. They hide under his skirts and before long they'll dump him and get another figure up there." The ZANU-PF official also confirmed that the leaders of the JOC carefully orchestrated the political violence during the campaign, but disagrees whether Mugabe will stand aside for one of their number. It is also, this official says, unclear who the heir apparent would be, with jockeying among several officials.
A new leader from the ranks of the JOC won't be a change for the better, especially if Tsvangirai isn't able to negotiate a significant share of power. Mnangagwa, 61, is reputedly the country's richest man, earning a fortune on investments in Congo when Zimbabwe intervened there on the side of Laurent Kabila. Mnangagwa also was director of the country's secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization, during the Matebeleland massacres of the 1980s, when thousands of supporters of Joshua Nkomo, Mugabe's rival black liberation leader, were killed. "Mnangagwa is more ruthless than Mugabe, and he's younger," says Shari Eppel, a Zimbabwean human rights activist.
The others aren't much more promising. The only other JOC civilian is Gideon Gono, 52, head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, who has presided over the country's hyperinflation, printing money at such a furious pace that the Zimbabwe dollar--nearly on par with the U.S. dollar in the 1980s--now trades at more than 20 billion to a single American greenback. Secret policeman Didymus Mutasa, 73, is minister of state security. In 2006 he responded to questions about the Zimbabwe's raging AIDS epidemic and the growing flight of Zimbabweans from their country with this comment: "We would be better off with only six million people [the population is 12 million], with our own [ZANU-PF] people who supported the liberation struggle," he said. "We don't want all these extra people."
Air Marshall Perence Shiri, 53, now the air force commander, previously had been in charge of the notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of the Army when it carried out the Matebeleland massacres. Paradzai Zimondi, 53, the prisons chief, publicly ordered all prison officers to vote for Mugabe. Augustine Chihuri, 55, the commissioner-general of police, told the government mouthpiece, the Herald, that "we will not allow any puppets to take charge," even if they won the election. He was the architect of the notorious 2005 Operation Murambatsvina ("Drive Out the Trash"), in which squatter settlements and impoverished roadside vendors were forced off city streets, to subsequent condemnation by a United Nations rapporteur. Finally, there's armed forces commander General Constantine Chiwenga, 51, who recently told a Zimbabwean newspaper, "the army will not support or salute sell-outs and agents of the West before, during and after the presidential elections." Chiwenga's wife, Jocelyn, is a key player in farm takeovers. White farmer Roger Staunton says when she came to take his huge, flower-producing farm, she called him a "white pig" and warned him to get going because "she had not tasted white blood since 1980 and missed the experience." All seven JOC members-already subject to European Union sanctions--are among 14 Zimbabwe officials who would be subjected to international financial and travel sanctions by the U.N. Security Council if a Western-backed resolution passes.
The JOC "cabal", as the ZANU-PF official referred to it, or "junta" in the words of the diplomat, is itself riven with internal disputes. Mnangagwa and some of the other JOC members were accused in an abortive coup plot last year hatched by junior officers, but were later absolved of involvement. When the MDC's deputy chairman, Tendai Biti, was arrested during the election campaign, his high-level interrogators had no interest in the trumped up charges against him, according to his lawyer, Lewis Uriri. Uriri says instead they questioned Biti on what kind of deal he had been discussing with negotiators from their own government. Biti and two lower ranking Mugabe officials had been talking about possible power sharing arrangements in some sort of unity government, through South Africa's mediation. "Biti realized there were powerful people in ZANU-PF who wanted to find out what was going on, people don't trust one another," Uriri said.
Whether Mugabe goes or stays after Monday's agreement, there's little room for optimism. The JOC's leaders are hardly the sort to do anything about the country's daunting problems. "You can rig an election but you can't rig the economy, which will say, ah ha, the holes are still leaking," Makumbe says. Four million Zimbabweans have "already voted with their feet," in U.S. ambassador James McGee's words, and fled. Another five million face possible starvation after a 90 percent drop in this year's harvests. That has not seemed to bother Mugabe and the power-brokers around him; holding on to control has been their overriding goal, and one they're not likely to give up on easily. The last of Africa's Big Men may be on his way out, but, unhappily for his countrymen, his spirit is far from extinguished.