It always seemed unlikely. Would President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, a man who has long shed any pretence of bowing to international opinion or the electoral verdict of his people, really agree to go to a summit of southern African leaders at which his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, would be treated as an equal?
For a man as hugely proud as Mr Mugabe, such a confrontation would have been uncharacteristic indeed. Especially when yesterday's gathering in Lusaka, capital of Zambia, had been called by President Levy Mwanawasa, the one southern African leader to break the region's code of omertá concerning criticism of Zimbabwe. Mr Mwanawasa, the current head of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), had likened conditions in his southern neighbour to the Titanic, heading for disaster.
So when it was initially announced that Mr Mugabe had accepted the invitation to yesterday's gathering, Zimbabweans experienced a wave of hope. If he was prepared to attend, surely it meant he was at last acknowledging defeat in the presidential election held two weeks ago? Mr Tsvangirai's claim to have beaten Mr Mugabe decisively has been accepted by most international monitors, and even privately by elements of the ruling Zanu-PF party – but the question has been whether he gained more than half the votes cast.
The MDC leader says he has; others are not so sure, believing a run-off will have to be held. Despite growing unease, as the days went by without the result being announced, and reports of violent retaliation in areas where the MDC had gained ground, it appeared that Mr Mugabe would agree in Lusaka to a second round of voting, with some measure of international supervision. If he was willing to be seen on the same platform as Mr Tsvangirai before an audience of his fellow regional leaders, he could hardly concede anything less.
By yesterday, however, Mr Mugabe was back to his usual self. On Friday the government had said there was no need for a summit in Zambia, because the election totals were still being tallied, and three hard-line ministers were dispatched instead while Mr Mugabe remained at home, forcing the SADC's designated mediator, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, to come to him. A clearer sign of the failure of Mr Mbeki's attempts to deal with Zimbabwe through "quiet diplomacy" could scarcely be imagined.
Despite the growing problems that Zimbabwe's crisis has caused for his own country, where three million Zimbabweans have fled, Mr Mbeki still appears hidebound by the revolutionary solidarity forged during the liberation wars of the last century. Where any other leader might have felt humiliated by Mr Mugabe's intransigence, the South African President reacted as he has always done: denying there was a problem and calling for patience.
Jacob Zuma, the leader of Mr Mbeki's own ANC party and his heir-apparent, finally lost patience with this approach last week, calling for Zimbabwe to publish the election result without delay. But the South African President would have been aware that Mr Zuma and Mr Mwanawasa are in a minority within SADC, where countries such as Namibia and Angola still hold fast to the old rhetoric of anti-colonialist "struggle". What happens in Zimbabwe will remain in Mr Mugabe's hands.
The unco-ordinated response of the Zimbabwean establishment to Mr Mwanawasa's summit call – first saying Mr Mugabe would take part, only to backtrack – might indicate some confusion in senior Zanu-PF ranks after an election in which the government's unpopularity was clearly demonstrated. The failure to declare the results of the presidential election has paralysed much of the civil service and business, with many government and private-sector employees failing to turn up to work in recent days.
But all the signs are that Mr Mugabe is preparing to deal with this crisis the same way he has handled every other challenge to his authority in his 28 years of rule: with intimidation and violence, regardless of the consequences. Enough police will be deployed to keep the main urban centres quiet while the rural areas are targeted. And the blows are expected to fall hardest in constituencies where Zanu-PF won, or came close to winning, two weeks ago.
The reason for this apparent paradox is that Mr Mugabe has long dispensed with the support of the minority Ndebele group, whose political resistance was crushed in a military campaign in the 1980s. At least 20,000 people were killed in that crackdown. Ever since, the people of Matabeleland, whose largest city is Bulawayo, have said Mr Mugabe will not go until his own group, the majority Shona, overthrow him.
Conscious of this, Zanu-PF has always reacted most viciously to any sign that the MDC is eroding the ruling party's base of support in the provinces around Harare, the capital, and down the eastern half of the country. These areas had not experienced mass intimidation until 2000, the year Mr Mugabe unexpectedly lost a referendum on extending his presidential powers.
What followed bears an ominous similarity to the current situation. After a pause during which Mr Mugabe appeared to accept the result, chaos was let loose across the country. White-owned farms were invaded by people claiming to be landless "war veterans", even though most were children or had not yet been born when the liberation war ended. Gangs of thugs went around villages herding people to meetings at which they were forced to chant Zanu-PF slogans, and suspected opposition supporters were brutally beaten.
It is from this time on that Mr Mugabe has come to be seen as a merciless dictator, impervious to criticism. He blames all setbacks on British imperialism. It took the sustained brutality of the present decade – and the plight of white farmers – for the international media to decide that Mr Mugabe was a monster.
In 2000, rural Shonas were told that they had voted the wrong way, and warned of the consequences if it happened again. The subsequent election, held after a three-month delay, showed that they had received the message: Zanu-PF won a narrow but decisive victory. In the election after that, Zanu-PF won a two-thirds majority, allowing Mr Mugabe to amend the constitution to his taste.
The urban areas have suffered bouts of intimidation, most importantly the Murambatsvina ("clear out the trash") campaign in 2005, which drove out street traders and the unemployed from the capital, forcing many back to the rural areas they had left to escape starvation. But it is in the countryside that the tactics of oppression have been constantly refined.
As the economy has slid into ruin and food shortages have become endemic, areas that back Zanu-PF get handouts of rations and implements to help with subsistence farming. Opposition areas get nothing. In large areas of Zimbabwe, the MDC did not dare to hold meetings during this election campaign for fear of violence. And if there were clashes with MDC youths, it was an opportunity for the police to round up party officials and helpers.
With the crushing victory of 2005 having been followed by a split in the MDC, which saw two factions using the party name in this election, the government appears to have become complacent about the outcome. As long as enough bribes were handed out and the MDC kept in check, Zanu-PF believed, rural voters in the north and east would deliver the desired result.
So desperate is life for most Zimbabweans, however, with inflation having reached 100,000 per cent and the ravages of HIV/Aids having reduced life expectancy for women to the lowest level in the world, that voters lost their docility.
"The trouble is that the results of the Assembly election have told Mugabe exactly where to target his intimidation," said an opposition source. "The areas that will suffer most are those where Zanu-PF narrowly lost, or had its majority severely cut. In 2005 Mr Tsvangirai did not win a rural seat outside Matabeleland. This time he won heavily in the east and south, and picked up seats in Mashonaland [the north-east] and Midlands areas. In his heartland, the three provinces of Mashonaland, Zanu-PF is likely to attempt to shut out the MDC altogether. In the rest of the country, they will have to try to batter down the MDC's structures."
How this will be managed was explained by the dissident policemen whose evidence has reached The Independent on Sunday. They said they had been told to be ready to deploy today or tomorrow, leading the opposition to surmise that the government will announce the election result and name the date for the second round once its forces are in place.
With their ranks swelled by "war veterans", who will be given uniforms and official police numbers, the policemen said they would be expected to campaign openly for Zanu-PF in the second round. The party loyalists who had joined them would report on any policemen unwilling to carry out their orders, and certain areas would be shut off completely to anyone entering from outside.
So far Mr Tsvangirai's stance has been that he won the presidential election outright, and that his party will not take part in any run-off. How he will react if the government announces a second round is not known, but the intimidation has already begun in rural areas north of the capital.
None of this should surprise anyone who has watched Mr Mugabe's defiance of international opinion previously. Yesterday's snubbing of the SADC summit makes it clear that nothing but direct international pressure will divert the unfortunate country's president from using force against his own people.
Days of delay
Sunday State newspaper reports that Mugabe has requested a recount "following revelations of errors and miscalculations".
Monday High Court delays decision on release of election results. MDC candidate Morgan Tsvangirai meets South African Jacob Zuma, leader of the African National Congress.
Tuesday Commercial Farmers Union reports invasions of 60 white-owned farms by Zanu-PF forces. Five election officials accused of altering results in MDC's favour are arrested.
Wednesday Southern African Development Community of 14 nations announces summit on crisis. South African President Thabo Mbeki refuses to meet Tsvangirai. Zimbabwe Electoral Commission lawyer George Chikumbirike tells court it would be dangerous to force release of results.
Thursday MDC declares Tsvangirai will not stand in a run-off.
Friday Government bans political rallies and arrests Tsvangirai's chief lawyer, Innocent Chagonda. MDC says about 1,000 of its supporters have been arrested or attacked since election. Zimbabwe Election Support Network estimates Tsvangirai has 47-52 per cent of the vote.
Saturday Mugabe meets Thabo Mbeki but refuses to attend regional summit.Reuse content