President Robert Mugabe has in the past two months sent between 6,000 and 11,000 of his soldiers across Africa to prop up the corrupt regime of his friend, Laurent Kabila, against a rebellion in the east of the Congo. His men are not doing well: in a conflict that has no bearing on Zimbabwe's national interests, more than 60 have been killed, according to the rebels, while morale is so low that military police are being sent in to focus the soldiers' minds on their task.
Persistently thwarted in his attempt to cast himself as a model for Africa, Mr Mugabe now finds himself besieged, at home by nationwide strikes, and internationally by opposition from donor countries to his policy of seizing white farms from their owners.
Last Wednesday, every important urban centre was peacefully brought to a standstill. Bulawayo, Gweru and Mutare, Kewkwe, Masvingo and central Harare itself were deserted as a call by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions for action against 67 per cent rises in fuel prices received overwhelming support. The ZCTU argued that the pounds 650,000-a-day cost of the war should not be borne by its impoverished members.
Even with the country at a standstill, the state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation somehow failed to notice, and made no mention of the strike. Evidence that Mr Mugabe had noticed, however, came on Thursday, when, at a meeting of business leaders, he appealed for national unity. "Mistrust and constant bickering among ourselves will not yield anything but chaos and ruin to our economy," he said. "I want to believe we must have one understanding, one sentiment and one heartbeat."
Among those whose hearts are presumably not beating in tune with that of Mr Mugabe are 840 commercial farmers. Last year he announced plans for the compulsory purchase of 1,500 farms, mostly white-owned, purportedly for landless peasants. The farmers' ancestors had taken the land from the peasants' ancestors in colonial times, he argued, and it was time to take it back. Under international pressure he held back from land seizures, and marginally reduced the number of listed farms.
But also on Thursday came news that 841 "acquisition-of-land orders" had been sent out. According to the president of the Commercial Farmers' Union, Nick Swanepoel, this meant that "immediately you get the order, your land now belongs to the state and comes under the jurisdiction of the state president, and payment would be discussed later".
In the short-term this might play well with some of the peasant farmers who are not employees on any of the 841 farms. Already squatters are moving on to commercial land in large numbers, assuming, as the government takes no action against them, that they have been given a nod and a wink.
But the reduction in the political temperature will not last long. The International Monetary Fund is to consider the release of $53m (pounds 32m) of aid in December, and not a cent of it will be forthcoming if the farm seizures go ahead. Britain is also seeking "urgent clarification". One currency trader offered a succinct view of the consequences of an aid cut-off: "If the IMF is not giving us money, then the exchange rate is doomed, and if the currency is doomed, then the economy is also doomed."
According to the secretary-general of the ZCTU, Morgan Tsvangirai, the social unrest sweeping Zimbabwe will take it to "the final solution". He was not explicit about what this solution might be, but in the context of Zimbabwean politics it could mean only one thing: the fall or removal from power of Mr Mugabe himself.
Even for the many who would devoutly wish for such an outcome, however, there is one problem. Mr Mugabe has ensured that there is no obvious successor to him, and the resulting political vacuum might well do further damage to the nation he has done so much to ruin.Reuse content