Whisper it quietly, but Zimbabwe may be witnessing the final days (if not hours) in office of the only leader it has ever known. While the people of this ruined country waited last night for their electoral voice to be heard, reports from high-level talks between aides of Robert Mugabe and the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai suggested they were edging closer to accomplishing the previously impossible.
After 28 years of seemingly unshakeable authority – in which all opponents have been sidelined, exiled or killed – the "old man" as Zimbabweans call him, was reported to be considering relinquishing power. Saturday's elections went so strongly against the ruling party, that it is understood he has been advised to quit now rather than face a humiliating second round against his hated rival, Mr Tsvangirai.
Sources close to the talks said that an "exit package" was being negotiated that could see the 84-year-old retire or even, according to one scenario, leave the country. While an agreement was far from settled, Mr Mugabe was believed to be seeking immunity from prosecution as well as guarantees relating to millions of pounds worth of assets held in a number of countries.
A US State Department official confirmed negotiations were under way, saying they followed indications that Mr Tsvangirai would secure a majority in the presidential election but fall short of the 51 per cent required to avoid a run-off.
However, both the ruling party and the opposition were at pains to quash the rumours. "Any speculation about deals and negotiations is speculation, because the results have not been announced," said Mr Tsvangirai in his first public appearance since Saturday's vote. "Let's wait for [the electoral commission] to complete its work, then we can discuss the circumstances that will affect the people."
And a junior minister in Mr Mugabe's government said: "There is no need for a deal ... there are no negotiations whatsoever."
As speculation swirled, Zimbabwe's electoral commission continued its theatre of the absurd. The official results, released at a trickle, continued to show the ruling Zanu-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) running neck-and-neck in terms of parliamentary seats. However, these results contradicted both the findings of independent election observers and the results amassed by opposition polling agents nationwide.
Three days after the poll, there had still been no official results concerning the presidential vote. A second round, which would have to be held within 21 days, appeared unlikely, after massive resources were poured into Saturday's poll, much of it in the form of crude vote-buying by Zanu-PF.
One scenario is that Mr Mugabe would stand aside and allow an alternative candidate from Zanu-PF to contest a second round. But that also carries the risk that the opposition would unite and the angry populace would give an even more resounding "No" to Zanu-PF than they did four days ago. "There is no way that Mugabe wants a second round. He would lose badly and be humiliated," said a senior diplomat close to the election crisis. Mr Mugabe himself ruled out a run-off before the weekend, saying there was no "second round in this boxing match".
Zimbabwe's two main cities remained calm, although riot police have been dispatched for nightly patrols, and roadblocks mounted outside all major towns. But Harare was awash with wild rumours. The wildest of those – that "Comrade Bob" had already fled the country – was quashed after he was spotted in the suburbs by foreign diplomats.
Political and business cronies will be dreading any departure of Comrade Bob. "I was talking to some of the bigwigs in the ruling party and they are also concerned about the possibility of a change of guard," Marwick Khumalo, the head of the Pan-African Parliament observer mission, told local radio in South Africa.
"Zanu-PF has actually been institutionalised in the lives of Zimbabweans, so it is not easy for anyone within the sphere of the ruling party to accept that 'Maybe we might be defeated or might have been defeated'."
Were Mr Mugabe to negotiate his exit now, he would leave behind him a country of 90 per cent unemployment; life expectancies of 34 and 37 for women and men respectively; 4,000 dead per month from Aids; and four million close to starvation. Yet no statistic encapsulates the turmoil of Zimbabwe as completely as the rate of inflation: 200,000 per cent and climbing.
The staunch Catholic emerged from more than a a decade in a Rhodesian prison to lead one faction of the liberation struggle against the white rule of Ian Smith, then won a resounding victory in the first elections to follow independence in 1980. Cast in the role of liberator, Mr Mugabe was initially the darling of the liberal world. Now he is the man who perfected the art of democratic dictatorship. The full extent of his fall may be apparent to him as he mulls the shrinking list of countries that might entertain him in exile in his dotage.
The demise of Africa's dictators
He was Africa's longest-serving ruler, presiding over the tiny nation of Togo for almost 40 years until his unexpected death. A former wrestling champion who was rarely seen in public without his dark glasses, Eyadema became head of state when Harold Wilson was Britain's prime minister. Until his death on 5 February 2005 at 69, Eyadema was the world's longest-serving leader after Cuba's Fidel Castro. Afterwards, Eyadema's son, Faure Gnassingbe, seized power with the backing of the army, triggering protests and riots.
He launched a rebellion in his homeland Liberia in 1989 but violence rumbled on for 14 years even after he became President. Went into exile in Nigeria in 2003 in a deal to end the conflict. In 2006, he was held by Nigerian police as he tried to cross the border into Cameroon. Currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes, accused of fomenting war in Sierra Leone.
Mobutu Seso Seke
Ruled the renamed Zaire (previously Congo) for more than 30 years. He seized power in 1965 with tacit support from the West, to act as a bulwark against Communist expansion. But Zaire's people sank into deeper poverty, despite its vast natural resources. Mobutu fled with $5bn (£2.5bn) in 1997 after rebel forces approached, but died four months later at 66.
The former Ugandan dictator seized power in a coup in 1971, unleashing a reign of terror on the east African country. Up to 400,000 people are believed to have been killed during his time in office. He was forced from power in 1979 by Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exiles, and fled to Libya and Iraq before settling in Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2003.
Appointed himself "president-for-life" of Malawi in 1971 and ruled with an iron fist, squashing dissent, reshuffling ministers to prevent the emergence of a rival and accumulating a fortune. In 1993, when the tyrant was ill, voters rejected his one-party state in a referendum, held the first multi-party elections and voted Banda out and into retirement.