The only leader the country has known in its 28 years of independence said he would rather go back to the bush and fight another liberation war than hand over Zimbabwe to Tsvangirai.
But yesterday, Mugabe was apparently persuaded to face reality under the unrelenting pressure of economic collapse and a desperate and hungry population, agreeing to cede most of his powers to Tsvangirai.
The MDC leader’s refusal to buckle and recognise Mugabe’s flawed claim to power under pressure from some African leaders, and the continued assault on his party’s MPs and activists, had meant there was no prospect of Zimbabwe getting the foreign aid it needs to rebuild the economy.
Mugabe had retained power through a bloody campaign against the voters, overturning Tsvangirai’s victory in the first round of the presidential election in March and claiming 90% of the vote in a second round three months later. But it did not confer legitimacy on Mugabe’s claim to be president and he had no solutions to the deepening crisis, as inflation surged to about 20m percent.
Tsvangirai will now become prime minister at the head of a council of ministers. There are likely to be more than 30 of them, which could prove unwieldy. But the council will be the principal organ of government, while Mugabe chairs a less powerful cabinet.
The council of ministers is to be divided between the MDC and Zanu-PF, and the division of the portfolios has yet to be agreed, which has the potential for further disagreement.
Mugabe wants Zanu-PF to keep control of the military through the defence ministry. The MDC can live with that, provided it has authority over the police, which will prove crucial in ensuring the fairness of future elections. But it is unclear if Zanu-PF will agree.
There may also be fundamental disagreement over land policy and the future of the formerly white-owned farms whose seizure helped to bring down the economy.
The opposition remained cautious last night, saying it believed Mugabe could yet back away before the signing of the agreement on Monday.
There is also concern among some of Mugabe’s critics who say he is skilled at outmanoeuvring his opponents and could still wield considerable influence.
Nonetheless, one MDC official said that it was not in Tsvangirai’s interests to reach an agreement that did not give him real power, because if he was unable to dramatically improve the lives of Zimbabweans he would be finished.
Foreign donors, including Britain and the US, said there would be no aid if Mugabe retained power – a trump card in Tsvangirai’s negotiations.
The price of change has been high. About 4 million Zimbabweans – one quarter of the population – have left the country in recent years in search of work to feed their families. Hundreds have been murdered, thousands beaten and tortured, and tens of thousands driven from their homes in the regime’s desperate efforts to cling to power.