Where to now, Robert Mugabe?

The human rights organisation Amnesty International spoke of a dark shadow over Zimbabwe at the 31st anniversary of its independence on Monday, but the darkness, diplomats say, has also begun to envelop President Robert Mugabe.

Two choices face the man who has ruled the country since independence, they add. He can follow the demands of his Southern African neighbours to end the reign of fear and violence he has inflicted on Zimbabweans for the past 11 years since he first encountered a strong opposition, or he can tell them to go to hell, as he has often told the West, the World Bank, the IMF and the Commonwealth.

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The first choice means holding free and fair elections under international supervision, which he appears almost certain to lose. In March 2008, the country was able to hold its first violence-free elections and he lost.

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He held his grip on power by unrolling a savage campaign of violence against his pro-democracy opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, in the following second-round vote. In opinion polls since then he has lagged way behind Tsvangirai, now his prime minister in a coalition government to which Mugabe was forced by his neighbours to agree.

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If he makes the second choice, the diplomats said, it will be so he can hold elections his way, as they have been held since 2000, marked by violence and rigging, and he can stay in power. Defiance to his neighbours, united under the 15-nation Southern African Development Community, carries the high risk of being banished by the group.

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“It will entail total international isolation,” said one Harare- based Western envoy.

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Mugabe and his cronies are already under targeted sanctions imposed by the West, and he withdrew from the Commonwealth in 2003 when it threatened to kick him out for cheating in elections.

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He found himself facing these uncomfortable choices not three weeks ago when a group of four SADC leaders, led by SA’s President Jacob Zuma, told him to stop the violent persecution of Tsvangirai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change, and to carry out a wide range of long-overdue democratic and electoral reforms. SADC had kept silent about Mugabe’s abuses for over a decade until the leaders’ meeting on March 31, and Mugabe was shocked.

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Mugabe is finding himself in a world that has shifted position radically only since January, said the diplomat. Mugabe was specifically warned by Zambian President Rupiah Banda at the Livingstone meeting of how the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East had shown what could happen when leaders do not listen to their people.

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Mugabe’s ministers and militias have been warning that in the next elections, which he says he wants held by September, the violence will be worse than the second-round ballot in June 2008 when more than 200 of Tsvangirai’s supporters were massacred and thousands brutalised and maimed. This was followed by the crash of the economy and the currency, collapse of infrastructure, a resultant national famine and one of Africa’s worst cholera epidemics. The economy has staged a modest recovery since then, the currency has stabilised and both basic and luxury commodities have become widely available since the MDC took control of the country’s finances in the coalition government.

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“Over the last 31 years Mugabe and his Zanu-PF (party) have evolved into a regime that is corrupt through and through, and the state is their private cash box,” said the diplomat. “Mugabe, having unfettered control over the economy, means chaos again.” Any respectable legacy the aged ailing Mugabe had to leave is now long gone, observers say.

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But he still has a chance to redeem something by letting the right things happen and conceding gracefully, the diplomat said.

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If he doesn’t, he’s got the example to look to of Laurent Gbabgo, the loser in elections in Ivory Coast late last year, who fought to hold on to his elapsed presidency, causing the loss of thousands of lives, until foreign troops had to dig him out of a bunker.

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“Does Mugabe want to be like that?” asked the diplomat. “I don’t know, but the prognosis is not good.”