Gangs loyal to Robert Mugabe have covertly rampaged across Zimbabwe's countryside for weeks. They wield axes and crowbars as well as AK-47s; some wear Zimbabwean military uniforms. Survivors tell of witnessing awful sights. A villager being lashed to the door of his house and set afire. Another who was draped in flaming plastic before the thugs torched his house, drenched his goats in fuel and ignited them, too.
On the surface, Zimbabwe's meltdown seems to be proceeding at a stately pace: government officials say they need to recount results from the March 29 general elections, and every few days they release a revised total from one disputed constituency or another. But opposition supporters and much of the outside world recognize this as a sham—"If [Zimbabweans] had voted for Mugabe, we would have the results" by now, Jendayi Frazer, the assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, said last week—and with each passing day resentments are hardening. The economy has ground to a halt. (In one five-hour period last week, inflation climbed 5 percent.) And the thugs are able to continue their dark work.
A region that has witnessed unprecedented growth and political stability is now consumed by an all-too-familiar problem—how to persuade a Big Man to go. "It's like the last days of Mobutu," says opposition activist Simon Spooner. It's a scary analogy: by the time Mobutu Sese Seko ended his 30-year reign over the Democratic Republic of Congo (then called Zaire), the country had sunk into a civil war that would kill 4 million people at home and spread across the region.
Mugabe is not likely to leave gracefully. A leader in the bush war that overthrew white minority rule in 1980, he helped make the new nation of Zimbabwe a model for the rest of the continent. His transitional government included two white ministers from the previous regime; he made education a top national priority, and he helped turn Zimbabwe into one of the most agriculturally productive and stable countries in Africa. But he's failed his country the same way so many other African liberation leaders failed theirs—by seeing himself as indispensable. In 2000, to gain support, Mugabe began seizing land from white farmers and giving it over to liberation-struggle veterans who knew nothing about raising food. Today the country is starving, and the war vets have become regime enforcers.
If anything, the fact that the March vote wasn't rigged outright was surprising. "Six months ago people at State were saying there wasn't going to be any significant change in Zimbabwe in this administration's tenure," says Michelle Gavin, a Zimbabwe expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. Western poll monitors were barred from the country during the March vote, but independent African observers were allowed—and many of them were equipped with mobile-phone cameras, to transmit vote counts as soon as they were posted. The coverage wasn't total, but it was good enough to keep challenger Morgan Tsvangirai from being openly robbed.
While Frazer was forceful in her comments last week, Washington knows that only local actors can show Mugabe the door. Zimbabwe's neighbors have been reluctant to challenge a man they used to idolize. But many do not want to be dragged down by some hoary decolonization drama. Mozambique, Namibia and, until late last week, Angola took a huge step by refusing to let a Chinese freighter enter their ports carrying nearly 80 tons of assault-rifle ammunition, mortar shells and grenades en route to Mugabe's security forces. Last week Tanzania's president, Jakaya Kikwete, raised the possibility that his country's troops might be used in Zimbabwe. "We will certainly consider it if asked," says a senior Tanzanian official who asked not to be named on such a touchy subject. "If we get there, to a point where military action is needed, if it's a multilateral project, then we'll do it. At the moment we do not think that will be necessary."
There's one big obstacle: Thabo Mbeki. South Africa's lame-duck president is the most powerful actor in the region, and so far he's resisted any calls to get tough with Mugabe. Mark Gevisser, Mbeki's biographer, says the two leaders have had a deep personal connection since the days when both were struggling against white rule, years after most other African countries had achieved independence. "Mbeki made a point of telling me that he considered Mugabe to be a father figure," Gevisser says, adding that Mbeki (19 years younger than Mugabe) has never emerged from the shadow of his old mentor.
No one knows whether a peaceful transition is possible. "It's going to be difficult to choreograph, very complicated—with one central question being how to manage the security forces," says Mark Bellamy, a longtime State Department Africa hand now at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Tsvangirai, who is widely believed to have won the March vote, has promised that Mugabe will be shielded from prosecution if he steps down, but Mugabe's senior security officials have no such guarantee. "Some of these guys are war criminals or abusers of human rights at the very least," says one well-placed Western diplomat in Harare, asking not to be named on such a sensitive topic. "They definitely know that if Mugabe gets a golden parachute they're not going to get one, and they're doing everything they can to keep him in there." For now Mugabe's enforcers are standing tough. NEWSWEEK has obtained a memo from an internal briefing to a group of police and intelligence officers by Zimbabwe's deputy minister of Home Affairs. "We are a Liberation Movement and will not hand over power," it says. It speaks for itself.