Zimbabwe has a deal: but is the Old Crocodile waiting to bite back?

If they really have, and if it sticks, it will mean an extraordinary alliance between Robert Mugabe and those who until yesterday were his bitterest foes – people who have been spied on, beaten up and arrested and seen friends and family killed by his thugs.

The on-again, off-again talks between Mr Tsvangirai and the man known to his people as “the Old Crocodile” began on July 21 and had seemed to be meandering towards failure. On Monday they were shrouded in gloom and pessimism. Despite some optimistic noises from both parties on Wednesday, The Herald – the state-run paper and propaganda organ for the ruling regime – was repeating accusations that Mr Tsvangirai was taking orders from the West and seeking to “reduce President Mugabe to a ceremonial leader. That is obnoxious to the establishment here.”

As the weeks passed, the derision of President Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” and mediation turned to a weary scorn. Frustrated by the lack of progress, the EU was preparing to add more names to its list of figures subject to a visa ban and whose assets had been 

And yet on Wednesday Mr Mugabe was sounding upbeat. In a throwaway remark – of which, with hindsight, the world should have taken more notice – he told reporters: “I am optimistic. We are not born to be pessimistic, are we?”

Mr Mbeki, the South African President, certainly sounded positive as he presented the agreement last night, although he urged the international community to wait and scrutinise the details – and not rely on what they thought should be in it. “It’s made in Zimbabwe, it’s made by Zimbabweans,” he said. “The rest of the world needs to respect that the people of Zimbabwe have taken a decision about their own country.”

Peter Hain, Britain’s Africa Minister, sounded a note of caution describing President Mugabe as a “slippery customer”. Mr Hain recalled how followers of Joshua Nkomo, a former opposition leader, were killed despite Mr Nkomo reaching an agreement with Mr Mugabe, his former comrade in the struggle that ended with Zimbabwean independence in 1980.

“He [Mr Mugabe] effectively swallowed his party up and killed a lot of his followers and obviously we don’t want to see a repeat of that, but I don’t think Tsvangirai would have agreed to anything that could see an action replay of what happed to Nkomo.

“I think that because Tsvangirai won the presidential election, and because all the African leaders, however muted their criticisms may have been of Mugabe, know that this crisis which Mugabe has created on his own is not sustainable.”

A Brussels-based diplomat who asked not to be named said: “We will see. The devil is in the details. It is a bit too early to react. We will see at the Council of EU Foreign Ministers [which meets on Monday].”

If the deal does stick, the new government will face an overflowing in-tray. Zimbabwe has gone in a few years from the economic pride of Africa to utter basketcase. One of its leading banks, Kingdom Bank, has said that the country’s inflation rate was more than 20 million per cent. Recently the Government had to knock 13 zeros off the currency because banks and bank machines simply could not cope with the mathematics.

In downtown Harare yesterday the banks were jammed with people hoping to cash cheques or trying to move their money by electronic transfer. Outside the queues at ATMs stretched for hundreds of people. The resentment of customers was intensified by the realisation that by the time they got their money, it would be worth less than when they started to queue.

The economic collapse is evident in frequent power cuts and water shortages, in the mountains of uncollected rubbish and the broadening rivers of raw sewage. Crime and corruption have exacerbated a crisis rooted in severe food, fuel and foreign currency shortages.

The world has marvelled at pictures of Zimbabweans visiting the supermarket carrying piles and piles of near-worthless notes – images that would be laughable if they did not point to a human tragedy.

For anyone brave enough to speak out as a supporter of Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change since the elections of March 29, violent retribution has been a fact of life. Election workers have been beaten until the flesh has fallen from their bones, made to sing songs in praise of Mr Mugabe at allnight reeducation sessions, or murdered. Hundreds have gone into hiding. Like the millions of Zimbabweans who have fled abroad – to neighbouring countries, to Europe and America – they may start weighing up plans to return home. Most will take their time to assess the political settlement before deciding on their future – to see if the new dawn is a true one.

The new unity government is expected to agree an emergency economic revival programme, and to dispatch Mr Tsvangirai to mobilise vital financial and food aid. Fully a third of Zimbabwe’s 12 million citizens have fled the country. Most of those that remain survive on barely a bowl of sadza – mealie-meal porridge – a day. The most basic services, health, education, transport, have all but collapsed. Zimbabwe now has the lowest life expectancy in the world.

If Mr Mugabe is right, and we should be optimistic, then the only way is up.

The long road

1999 Opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) forms as economic woes persist

2000 Zanu (PF) narrowly holds off challenge from MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, in parliamentary elections

2002 Robert Mugabe is reelected as President

2003 Mr Tsvangirai is arrested twice and charged with treason

2004 Mr Tsvangirai cleared

March 2005 Zanu (PF) wins two thirds of the votes in parliamentary elections, which the opposition says were rigged

May-July 2005 A “clean-up” programme destroys tens of thousands of homes, many in areas where MDC has strong support

November 2005 Zanu (PF) wins majority of seats in the new Upper House of Parliament

March 2007 Mr Tsvangirai in hospital after being arrested at a rally

June 2007 Zanu (PF) and the MDC hold preliminary talks in South Africa

March 2008 First round of parliamentary and deferred presidential elections

April 2008 Results released by Zimbabwe’s electoral commission show Mr Mugabe’s party losing its majority in Parliament for first time

May 2008 Mr Tsvangirai declared winner of the presidential election, but without the outright majority he needs

June 22 Tsvangirai withdraws from run-off to be held on June 27

June 29 Mugabe declared the winner by a landslide and sworn in as President

July 1 African Union leaders call for the formation of a government of national unity

July 10 Zanu (PF) and the MDC begin preliminary talks in Pretoria

July 21 Deal signed that paves way for detailed talks

August 10-12 Power-sharing talks in Pretoria

August 25 Parliament sworn in

September 9-11 Talks leading to deal