Johannesburg — A bitter argument has flared in the Commonwealth over whether it is time to bring Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe back from exile and readmit him to the organisation.
Zimbabwe was suspended after last year's controversial election in March 2002, in which the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) alleged major manipulation and rigging. A Commonwealth observer team agreed that the result was not free and fair and suspension was the punishment.
A troika of Commonwealth members - Nigeria, South Africa and Australia - was appointed to make recommendations on how to solve the political and economic crisis and it soon became obvious that there were tensions.
While Australia took a hard line, in common with other 'Western' Commonwealth members led by Britain, Nigeria and South Africa saw constructive engagement as the way forward and they argued that punitive measures like sanctions only entrenched the Mugabe government's determination to pursue its controversial 'land reform' policy ejecting white farmers from their farms and cracking down heavily on the MDC.
Now Presidents Obasanjo and Mbeki want Zimbabwe readmitted but Australia's prime minister, John Howard - with some African support from Kenya and Botswana -is opposed.
Amid political and diplomatic isolation and a desperate economic situation, with drought-induced hunger aggravated by a self-inflicted crisis in food production, with galloping inflation and shortages of fuel and almost all basic needs, there is a sense that Zimbabwe is approaching crisis point. Readmission to the Commonwealth would be the first step towards economic and political rehabilitation. The African troika members say that is in the interest of all Zimbabweans. Those who disagree would see it as an endorsement of Mugabe's policies of repression and autocratic rule.
It may be, however, that the real political drama is taking place inside Zimbabwe, not only between Zanu-PF and the MDC but within the ruling party itself. There have been strong signs that members of Mugabe's own cabinet and top officers in the army have been looking for ways to ease him out without allowing the MDC to seize the initiative.
Some scenarios have Mugabe anointing an effective successor and stepping back into a ceremonial role; others have him being forcibly ejected in a coup, with the MDC being invited to join a unity government; still others postulate an MDC 'uprising' as Zanu-PF implodes with rival bids for power.
Allister Sparks is a veteran South African journalist and a former correspondent for the Washington Post, the London Observer and Holland's NRC Handelsblad. "Beyond the Miracle: The Making of the New South Africa," his third book about apartheid and the post-apartheid transition, is scheduled for publication later this year.
He contributed this account of behind-the-scenes manoevres as Zimbabwe's key political actors make their bid for power.
The first indication that Robert Mugabe might soon cease to be Executive President of Zimbabwe came last November when a Catholic priest, Fr Fidelis Mukonori, who is close to Mugabe, called on the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai, to say the President wanted to meet with him outside the country. The priest hinted that Mugabe was thinking of retiring.
In the event, nothing came of this, but a few weeks later a former Rhodesian army officer now living in South Africa contacted Tsvangirai, whom he knew, to say that Colonel Lionel Dycke, a former colleague who had stayed on to serve in the Zimbabwe army where he gained the confidence of the ruling ZANU-PF party, wished to meet with the MDC leader. Soon afterwards Dycke turned up at Tsvangirai's Harare home accompanied by the ex-Rhodesian. So began a series of proximity talks that have brought the Zimbabwean crisis to a watershed point.
Just what prompted Dycke to play the role of political intermediary is not quite clear. Dycke himself has gone to ground and failed to return my calls during a week of investigation into events in Zimbabwe. But before he did so he told journalists in Harare that as a concerned citizen - he is also a wealthy businessman who specialises in the removal of landmines world-wide - he wanted to try to bring about a settlement that would stop Zimbabwe's catastrophic economic meltdown.
Four months of secret talks
To that end he had gone to see his old commanding officer, General Vitalis Zvinavashe, chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Force. Zvinavashe in turn put him in touch with Emmerson Mnangagwa, Speaker of the Zimbabwe Parliament, ZANU-PF's chief of administration and the man reputed to be Mugabe's chosen successor. Mnangagwa goes by a Shona nickname which means "The Son of God."
But according to Tsvangirai, Dycke gave him a slightly different story, saying he had been approached by an officer of the British intelligence service, MI-6. who urged him to talk to Gen Zvinavashe because MI-6's assessment was that the military was the only institution with power in Zimbabwe.
At all events, when Dycke met Zvinavashe and Mnangagwa -- both members of the ZANU-PF Politburo who together form the most powerful duo in Zimbabwe -- he found they were concerned about the worsening situation in Zimbabwe. According to sources who spoke to him recently, Dycke said he had met periodically with Zvinavashe and Mnangagwa over a period of four months before he offered to put them in touch with Tsvangirai.
When they agreed, he contacted his former Rhodesian army colleague who knew Tsvangirai, and so the meeting took place.
According to Tsvangirai, Dycke told him that Mugabe had agreed to retire but in doing so said nothing about holding elections.
The MDC position
Tsvangirai therefore handed him a policy document which spelled out the MDC's standpoint on a political transition. The document stresses that the MDC considers the March 2001 presidential election to have been rigged (as did most international observer teams) and therefore regards the present government as illegitimate.
"All our troubles emanate from that," says Tsvangirai. "The only solution is to restore legitimacy. That is where Mugabe is the stumbling block. He must go. I told Dycke that if Mugabe went, we would be prepared to co-operate in finding a solution. There would have to be some form of bridging mechanism to re-establish national confidence."
The document states that there should be a Transitional National Council made up of ZANU-PF and MDC members. The Transitional Council would have four tasks:
* It would be a caretaker government for six to 18 months, preparing the ground for a new election.
* It would institute an economic recovery programme.
* It would draft a new Constitution.
* It would establish a Land Commission to repair the damage caused by Mugabe's disastrous land redistribution programme, aimed at gaining international support so that displaced white farmers can be paid compensation and support systems put in place for newly settled black farmers.
Amnesty for Mugabe
Tsvangirai says he also told Dycke that if Mugabe retired, the MDC would be prepared to agree to grant him immunity from prosecution for human rights abuses. In addition to acts of violence against the MDC during and after last year's presidential election, Mugabe has been accused of ordering a massive crackdown on Joshua Nkomo's opposition ZAPU party in Matabeleland in 1983 during which an estimated 20,000 people were killed.
The meeting with Dycke took place over a weekend in late November. "On the Monday," says Tsvangirai, "Dycke phoned me saying his guys were very excited about my proposals. He said they would come back to me."
But Tsvangirai grew suspicious. "We did an analysis ourselves about what this all meant," he told me. "We realised that Mnangagwa was trying to position himself to take over power with the assistance of the military, but he wanted to do it in a way that would be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the British and the South Africans.
"We were concerned that the succession debate within ZANU-PF was over, and we didn't know whether Mugabe was part of it or not. If he was not part of the deal it would mean nothing.
"I smelt a rat," he added.
Tsvangirai says two other things troubled the MDC. Firstly they felt Mnangagwa was pushing himself to become President, and they regarded him as unacceptable. As a former chief of intelligence, they believe he has committed human rights violations, and Mnangagwa has also been named by a United Nations investigative team as ZANU-PF's key agent in looting diamonds out of the Congo during Zimbabwe's military involvement in that country's civil war.
MDC leaders also point to the fact that Mnangagwa lost the safe ZANU-PF seat of Kwekwe to a little known MDC candidate in the 2000 parliamentary elections as evidence of his unpopularity among the people of Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa was subsequently rescued by Mugabe, who nominated him as Speaker of Parliament.
A second concern, says Tsvangirai, is that "we don't want the military to be part of this solution. If they do become part of it, at what point do you get them out again?"
Another set of secret talks
The MDC's more cautionary reaction may have been further influenced by a second set of proximity talks which took place almost simultaneously in Johannesburg
On Friday December 6, David Coltart, an MDC MP and the party's specialist on legal and constitutional affairs, received a call from a prominent South African businessman with close links to the ANC asking him to fly to Johannesburg the next day to meet with the ANC. Coltart did so, and on Sunday December 8 the businessman introduced him to Patrick Moseke, an obscure figure who described himself as an ANC MP and a member of the party's Political Education Department.
Moseke told Coltart that Mnangagwa had led a delegation of ZANU-PF members to South Africa the previous week for talks with the Mbeki government, and asked Coltart to spell out the MDC's position on the Zimbabwe crisis. Coltart did so, essentially along the same lines as Tsvangirai had to Dyck, giving him the same MDC policy document and stressing that the MDC was basically pragmatic, but stressing that its bottom line was that Mugabe had to resign and there had to be a jointly-run Transitional Authority to prepare the way for an internationally supervised election.
Coltart told Moseke that he thought an appropriate composition for the Transitional Authority should reflect the results of the 2000 parliamentary elections, which would give ZANU-PF 51% and the MDC 49% of the members. But he stresses that this was a personal not an official MDC proposal.
At the same meeting Moseke showed Coltart a document analysing the situation in Zimbabwe that he said had been drafted earlier by a group of ANC parliamentarians, aided by someone from the intelligence services. Moseke said the document had been given to President Thabo Mbeki who had embraced its recommendations.
Coltart says he found the analysis of Zimbabwe's economic crisis and its causes comprehensive and perceptive, but its recommendations made no reference to elections and a transition to democracy. Instead it referred to the need for "a leadership succession plan." At the same time the document dismissed the MDC as a rudderless party lacking in both policies and unity.
A 'sanitising' ploy
The impression this gave the MDC was that the ANC was not looking to new elections to produce a legitimate government as the solution to the Zimbabwe crisis, but rather a strategy to bring about a new leadership of ZANU-PF as the governing party.
This prompted the suspicion among the MDC leaders that there was an attempt to draw them into a process intended to "sanitise" the ZANU-PF regime in which they would be powerless token partners. It looked like a fatal course for them to follow, for they would surely be rejected by their own angry constituents who want political change.
This was also the source of growing anger at the Mbeki government, which the MDC is now openly accusing of being a "dishonest broker" committed to keeping ZANU-PF in power.
Moseke met again with Coltart on Monday December 9, saying he had spent the previous evening conveying the MDC's position to the Mnangagwa delegation which was staying in another Johannesburg hotel. The feedback, he said, was that ZANU-PF did not want an early election because they did not yet have a leadership plan in place and they would want to consolidate a new leadership before going to the electorate.
Because of that, Mugabe would have to remain President and see out his five-year term. However they recognised that, because of international pressure and the disapproval directed towards Mugabe himself, they would have to get a new leader. Therefore Mugabe would remain as a ceremonial President, either by amending the constitution (which would require the MDC's support in Parliament) or by doing it voluntarily.
Under the present constitution Mugabe could simply withdraw from exercising his executive powers and delegate them to Mnangagwa whom he could name as Prime Minister. That would, of course, be a de facto, not a de jure, change. In law Mugabe would still be the supreme executive authority, and so it would be a voluntary arrangement that he could reverse if he wanted to - although that might trigger serious repercussions within the ruling party.
A new face
According to Moseke, Mnangagwa would take steps to put a new face on the ZANU-PF government. He would fire its more egregious elements, including Information Minister Jonathan Moyo and the Commissioner of Police, Augustine Chihuru, whose men have been accused of partisan political behaviour and human rights abuses, and he would "restore the rule of law."
Moseke said Mnangagwa would adopt a more pragmatic approach to the land resettlement issue, getting some white commercial farmers back on the land and trying to revive agricultural production.
On the political front, Moseke said, the Mnangagwa group was prepared to offer the MDC two Cabinet positions, but he added that he believed the ANC could persuade them to increase the number to five, with several Deputy Ministers.
The present Zimbabwe Cabinet has 27 members, with a number of Deputy Ministers.
Moseke added that if the MDC did not accept the proposal, Mnangagwa would crush the opposition movement more completely than Mugabe had sought to do - but Coltart says he had the impression this was Moseke's own assertion and not a threat from Mnangagwa himself.
The Stellenbosch appearance
In his account of the meetings, Coltart says he explained to Moseke that the MDC could not enter into a Government of National Unity on those terms, pointing out how the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and its leader, Joshua Nkomo, had been degutted and destroyed by being co-opted as junior partners into the ZANU-PF government.
"I also told him that Mnangagwa would be unacceptable both to us and to the international community as the political leader of Zimbabwe," Coltart said.
On December 12 Coltart submitted a detailed report of his meetings in Johannesburg to Tsvangirai.
The weekend of December 13-15 saw Mnangagwa given a prominent role at the ZANU-PF congress in Zimbabwe.
Four days later, on December 19, Mnangagwa was presented on stage at the ANC's national conference in Stellenbosch, and given a standing ovation.
While Mnangagwa was still in Stellenbosch, Zimbabwe's Sunday Mirror, an independently-owned pro-ZANU-PF newspaper, published a report stating that there was a Mugabe exit plan. It gave no details.
Lull over holidays
At the same time, on December 18, Tsvangirai revealed in an address to MDC members in Harare that he had been approached by Dycke who had presented to him what he called an "Anglo-South African plan" for Mugabe's exit. A convoluted report of this appeared next day in the pro-MDC newspaper, The Daily News
But by now southern Africa was into the Christmas holiday season -- known in media circles as the "silly season" -- when everything shuts down as people go on holiday and serious news goes on the back burner. No-one picked up on these intriguing reports until early January.
Then three foreign correspondents, hearing further rumours of Dycke's involvement, went to see the retired colonel. They say Dycke was reluctant to speak to them at first, but eventually told them in confidence of his meetings with Zvinavashe, Mnangagwa and Tsvangirai. They thereupon went to see the MDC leader who was also reluctant to speak, but under intense questioning eventually confirmed the exchanges through Dycke - this time on the record.
And so on January 16 the story broke in The Times of London and in South African newspapers. Tsvangirai was also interviewed by the BBC, which broadcast his confirmation of the Dycke discussions on its Africa Service.
Denials - and an admission
This was followed by swift denials from Zvinavashe, Mnungagwa and ZANU-PF itself that there was a conspiracy against Mugabe. Mbeki's office also denied any involvement in or knowledge of a "plot" to oust Mugabe. Mugabe himself, at a function to honour ex-President Kenneth Kaunda in the Zambian capital of Lusaka (Mugabe was still on his way back from his Far East holiday), denied that he was going to retire.
But none denied that there was a plan to move Mugabe into a titular Presidency and delegate his executive powers to Mnangagwa as a Prime Minister.
In another press interview published on January 19, Zvinavashi admitted there was a crisis in Zimbabwe, so serious, he said, that "it cannot be left to nature." However he again denied that there was a plot to oust Mugabe, saying it was essential that the President remain in office for his full term.
What does all this mean?
It seems clear that there was a plan to move Mugabe into the position of a purely ceremonial President, and for him to appoint Mnangagwa as a Prime Minister who could introduce some reforms in the hope of making the Zimbabwe government look more acceptable to the international community.
It seems probable, too, that South Africa was involved in the plan and wanted to persuade the Mnangagwa group to include some MDC members in its new Cabinet so as to give the appearance of a Government of National Unity, which is what President Mbeki has been aiming at for from the outset.
Acceptance of such a plan would have enabled Mbeki and Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo, as members of the Commonwealth troika together with Australia's John Howard charged with reviewing Zimbabwe's suspension in March, to report that there was a material improvement in the Zimbabwe situation and that the suspension should not be renewed.
Mbeki would have emerged triumphant, his much-criticised policy of "quiet diplomacy" vindicated.
But the MDC is not playing ball. It sees the proposal as a ploy to co-opt it as a minority player in a process to sanitise the ZANU-PF regime and leave it in power, with no prospect of a new election until Mugabe's term of office runs out in 2008. They believe they would be powerless in that position and that their constituents - whom they believe are the majority of the Zimbabwe population - would reject them angrily for betraying them and joining a regime that has repressed them violently.
The MDC is rejecting any deal that does not lead to an early election, which the Mnangagwa group appears unwilling to contemplate. Which means that on the face of it the plan is a non-starter.
What will happen now?
So what will happen next? Thus far this report has set out the facts of what has happened. Assessing what may happen next takes it into the uncertain realm of speculation.
The first intriguing question is whether Mugabe was party to the plan or not. Either way, there are significant implications.
* If he was party to the plan and this comes to light, as it must do if it is true, his party and the people of Zimbabwe will know that he is ready to relinquish executive authority and his almost dictatorial powers. That will make him a lame duck President.
* If Mugabe was not party to the plan, it means both he and other party leaders now know that his two most trusted supporters, who have kept him in power through their commanding positions in the military and the ruling party, have been planning to get rid of him. In the words of Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, they are "coup plotters". This must undermine Mugabe's authority within the party as well as his own sense of personal security.
Either way it must mean that Mugabe is now seriously weakened. It has been recognised by the party's king-makers that he has become a liability to both the party and the country. It can be only a matter of time before he goes.
But how will he go? I believe the first of the two possibilities I have outlined above is the most credible one - that Mugabe was party to the plan; that the combination of age, unrelenting pressure and the fear of what may happen to him and his family should Zimbabwe collapse completely and even his own closest supporters turn against him, may had led him at last to look for a safe way out. The prestige of a high ceremonial office is not a bad prospect for a lifetime retirement.
So my guess is that after lying low for a time to let the storm subside, the planners will become active again and implement the strategy unilaterally - without the MDC. Probably Mugabe himself will announce it and make the appointment of Mnangagwa.
In presenting a new-look Cabinet without the participation of the MDC, Mnangagwa might well turn to the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), whose leadership has been following a conciliatory rather than a confrontational strategy in its dealings with the government over farm seizures - a controversial approach that has led to a breakaway movement called Justice for Agriculture (JAG) whose members are challenging the farm seizures in the courts.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Mnangagwa could invite the CFU president, Colin Cloete, to join his Cabinet as Minister of Lands. And since more than 50% of the seized commercial farms have not yet been occupied by black farmers, who do not have the capital or support systems to run them, to invite some of the white farmers to return to their land.
This may happen only after the Commonwealth troika's March meeting, but Mbeki and Obasanjo could assure Britain's Tony Blair and other key Commonwealth leaders that a change in Zimbabwe is in the offing, with Mugabe withdrawing from the seat of power and handing over to Mnangagwa who will embark on a programme of reform.
They may even say that an offer was made to the MDC to participate in a Government of National Unity, but that regrettably it has refused.
How the international community - and Britain in particular - might react to such a presentation is hard to say. I believe they would see it for what it is, but might also reckon that it offers a better way forward than continued confrontation. The response of most major powers to problems like this at the periphery of their national interest is that they simply want them to go away.
Possible MDC moves
But how the MDC reacts to the new situation could change the course of events in unpredictable ways.
Already, by disclosing the exchanges that took place through Dycke, Tsvangirai has thrown a cat among the ZANU-PF pigeons. When the leader of any party that has been in power for 23 years shows signs of going, power struggles often begin over the succession. It is no secret that Mnangagwa is not popular within ZANU-PF: he has been seen as a favourite son for too long, and a clandestine move to make him the successor without going through normal party election processes is bound to stir up resentments and resistance.
Already at least three factions are said to be forming within ZANU-PF, and similar splits may soon appear in the military. One group, led by Solomon Majuru, who headed Mugabe's guerrilla army during the liberation war and was the first chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Force (he went under the nom de guerre of Rex Nhongo then) is said to be strongly opposed to Mnangagwa as the successor. He is said to be supported by the Minister of Defence, Sydney Sekeremayi, and Joshua Nkomo's former guerrilla commander, Dumiso Dabengwa, who joined ZANU-PF in the Nkomo merger and was then defeated in his Bulawayo constituency in the 2000 parliamentary elections. Though retired, Majuru is said to still have influence over key figures in the Zimbabwe Defence Force.
In such an atmosphere, public reaction may begin to show itself in a country that has been remarkably passive in the face of economic collapse and mass starvation. If the MDC, which has played a restrained role since last year's election to avoid attracting even greater repressive action against its members, decides to become more assertive now and take to the streets to demonstrate its popular support, there may be violent clashes - which would hardly convince Blair and the other Commonwealth members that Zimbabwe is on a road to recovery.