Mugabe 'in state of panic' as his rule is challenged

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The Independent Online

After 10 days in which he has faced moves for his impeachment, food riots sparked by the economic crisis and a damning opinion poll, President Robert Mugabe looks embattled as never before in his 20 years as Zimbabwe's leader.

After 10 days in which he has faced moves for his impeachment, food riots sparked by the economic crisis and a damning opinion poll, President Robert Mugabe looks embattled as never before in his 20 years as Zimbabwe's leader.

But after the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) yesterday passed the first hurdle in moves to impeach the president - by winning the Speaker of parliament's approval for a parliamentary investigation into Mr Mugabe's conduct - the mood looked set to become uglier and more racially fuelled.

In London yesterday Ian Smith, the former Rhodesian leader, said: "Mugabe is like a wounded animal in a corner." He was responding to a threat on Wednesday by Mr Mugabe that he and other whites who had resisted majority rulewould be put on trial for genocide. Mr Smith who, with his own forces and black independence fighters was amnestied at the end of white rule in 1980, said: "He is unpredictable and dangerous. He is in a state of panic."

The MDC's launch on Wednesday of impeachment proceedings against Mr Mugabe - for allegedly breaching the constitution by encouraging violence that claimed 32 lives before the June general election, is symbolic but deeply humiliating.

With 57 of the 150 parliamentary seats, the MDC, headed by the former trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai, falls short of the two-thirds needed for impeachment. But the party hopesto broaden debate about Mr Mugabe's future and exploit divisions over his leadership in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF).

On Wednesday the MDC tactic appeared to have had an immediate effect on President Mugabe, whose age (76), culture and single-thought Marxist mindset precludes the notion that his authority might be questioned. Yesterday the fact alone of the Mugabe loyalist and Speaker Emmerson Mnangagwa being forced by parliamentary procedure to announce an impeachment inquiry represented a huge embarrassment.

At the end of what must have been one of the most bruising 10 days of his career, Mr Mugabe went on the offensive. He allegedly told a party caucus: "We know there are those who support ... MDC. Those of our party members who think that MDC will rule - never, never, never, never. We ... are examining ourselves to see the true loyal supporters. If we find you might be pretending to be a Zanu-PF member, but after examination we hear you are with MDC, you are out," said Mr Mugabe, who is understood reluctantly to have agreed to a discussion on his succession at a party congress in December.

His term expires in 18 months and while he - if pushed - is said to favour Mr Mnangagwa as his successor, there are rumours that the new Finance Minister, Simba Makoni, has his eyes on the leadership of Zanu-PF and the presidency and that he has the backing of younger, reformist forces in the party.

Mr Mugabe believes Zimbabwe's economic problemsare the result of a conspiracy by whites in cahoots with Western forces.

Until this week Mr Mugabe, a prominent figure in the Southern African Development Community, enjoyed the support of regional heads of state for the violent campaign which preceded February's referendum on the constitution and June's election and which has resulted in 1,500 commercial farms being occupied by Zanu-PF supporters.

Then, on Thursday the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, broke ranks and condemned the violence north of the Limpopo river. "This conflict is wrong. This approach, this occupation of farms, the seizure of farms, the disregard for the law, these things are wrong, these things must be addressed," he said at a meeting with journalists in Pretoria.

Even as the Zimbabwe government this week pledged to go ahead with its "fast-track'' resettlement programme to put thousands of poor blacks on to at least 2,000 white-owned properties by the end of the year, President Mugabe's popularity at home seemed to hit a record low.

In a poll by Gallup, 56 per cent of respondents agreed that Mr Mugabe should be put on trial for election-related violence and 51 per cent wanted him to resign before his term expires.

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