But hold on. A bad deal may well be worse than no deal, if it lets Mr Mugabe stay in power, with Mr Tsvangirai’s lot as supplicant partners in a government of bogus unity. Even if he seems to be prolonging Zimbabwe’s agony, Mr Tsvangirai should resist the blandishments of Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, who has been trying to mediate an agreement that would in effect leave Mr Mugabe and his thugs in charge.
The fact that negotiations have got under way, even if they have recently stalled, marks progress. The old man has given ground merely by declaring himself ready to share power. Mr Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change, which is acknowledged by all sides to have won a parliamentary election in March while its leader indisputably won the first round of a presidential poll, have suggested that Mr Mugabe should become a ceremonial president and Mr Tsvangirai an executive prime minister in a transitional period before fresh elections are held. Mr Mugabe seems ready to let the opposition handle the bankrupt country’s finances and even its foreign affairs but insists on controlling the rump of the security forces, which may anyway already be running the country.
That is where Mr Tsvangirai must remain firm. If he enters a government without acquiring authority over the armed men, he will become an unwitting agent for perpetuating the cruel and venal order that has turned Zimbabwe from an African bread basket into a husk of destitution.
In truth, it is devilish hard to judge how much ground it would be wise for Mr Tsvangirai to give, in the hope of gradually gaining rightful power. Once his foot is in the door of government, with the cheers of the people and the backing of foreign governments and aid agencies, he would strive to build and then assert his authority. But Mr Mugabe and his security men, who could end up in the International Criminal Court at The Hague if he bowed out, do not see it that way at all. And Mr Mbeki seems content to leave Mr Mugabe in place, in the hope that age alone will gradually ease him out.
He won’t be there for ever
Nonetheless, horrible as Zimbabwe’s plight is today, time may just be on Mr Tsvangirai’s side. A big factor in his favour is the economy’s accelerating meltdown. With inflation now officially at 11,000,000% a year, the currency is virtually worthless. The latest harvest has been dire; bread is running short; civil servants’ pay is pointless; barter, the black market, subsistence, remittances, charity and foreign aid (if Mr Mugabe lets it in) will soon be how most Zimbabweans survive. Foreign governments, bankers and aid givers should co-ordinate and display an emergency package, then make it plain they will ride to the rescue only if a unity government is transitional, with Mr Mugabe at best in a temporary ceremonial role and his security men, who have bluntly said they would never serve under Mr Tsvangirai’s leadership, removed forthwith.
But why should Mr Mugabe co-operate in his own demise? Other dictators, such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, remain doggedly in power, sealed off from their pauperised people. Mr Mugabe, sycophant-surrounded and with his own foreign-currency wallet, is short of neither bread nor baubles, and may do the same. Yet his regime is more susceptible to pressure than it seems. Zimbabwe still has a kernel of civil society and free institutions. Nor is it walled off from its neighbours, now hosting millions of sullen exiles. Levy Mwanawasa, president of next-door Zambia, who died this week, sorely wanted Mr Mugabe to go (see article); other African leaders are becoming impatient. The best memorial to the decent Zambian would be for his peers to hasten Mr Mugabe’s removal—and not to cajole Mr Tsvangirai into signing a deal that would leave the tyrant in charge as his country disintegrates.