Nation on the brink

While the EU considers whether President Mugabe intends to hold free elections, the murders and beatings go on.

Discussing Zimbabwe some 10 years ago, Douglas Hurd, then foreign secretary, was warned that Robert Mugabe remained, at heart, a hardline one-party-state socialist. Hurd laughed: "His heart? Who cares what is in a politician's heart?"

Yet President Mugabe's heart – and how to change it – is now frustrating politicians and diplomats world-wide. At 78 and having been in power for two decades, Mr Mugabe has chosen to follow his feelings, rather than his brain. He remains as astute and articulate as ever, but his heart seethes with the Chimurenga, the 15-year war of liberation which ended white rule and brought him to power. He did not fight it to establish a liberal, multi-party democracy which might one day deprive him of power through the ballot box.

The degree of ruling-party violence and other forms of political intimidation in Zimbabwe continue to escalate, and concern in the West is now so great that EU foreign ministers meet on 28 January to decide if Mr Mugabe really intends to hold free and fair elections in March, with international observers present, and has made efforts to curb violence by his supporters. Meantime, Commonwealth, EU and US officials have begun investigating the overseas assets of Mr Mugabe, his family and associates, in readiness for possible sanctions against Zimbabwe.

Mr Mugabe, fearing that a free and fair election might cost him the presidency, has launched the second stage of the liberation war. His aims are to obliterate all opposition to his rule and to retake the land that white foreigners seized more than 100 years ago. He is prepared to win at any cost – even the destruction of the country he claims to be liberating.

That is the logic of Mr Mugabe's supposed madness. The painful irony is that, while he pretends to champion the poor and landless, he is giving away huge chunks of the country to South African and Libyan companies in exchange for fuel and electricity. When Zimbabwe awakes from its nightmare, its citizens will find they have less control and ownership of their land and resources than ever. Zimbabwe is slipping into catastrophe, and the rest of the world are trying to stop it. But how? Is there anything that the world can do that would change his heart – or just his behaviour? Neither the tough-talking Peter Hain when a Foreign Office minister, nor the quiet diplomacy of South Africa's President Mbeki have achieved any change.

Mr Mugabe knows how to create a smokescreen out of verbal concessions. His Jesuit training made him legalistic, so, while he holds parliamentary democracy in contempt, he likes to play by the book. If laws don't suit him, he does not ignore them, he forces through a change.

Meantime, violent repression has continued unabated. Opposition leaders and supporters continue to be murdered and beaten up, the press is harassed, and the courts threatened or judges replaced. The economy shrank by 4 per cent last year and is expected to fall far farther, half a million Zimbabweans are short of food, two-thirds are unemployed, and inflation rages at more than 100 per cent.

This year things can only get worse. Aid from foreign donors has died to a trickle and the World Bank and the IMF have stopped loans and assistance. Despite offers of aid if Mr Mugabe calls off his party thugs and restores the rule of law, he has not responded. The world has began to search for sanctions to force him to change, but how do you apply sanctions to a government prepared to destroy the country to stay in power?

The US and the EU are preparing to impose "smart sanctions" on Zimbabwe's rulers and officials, such as refusing them entry, seizing their private assets and freezing their bank accounts in the US and Europe. In theory, that should hurt those responsible but not the majority of Zimbabweans. The US Congress has already passed the Democracy and Economic Recovery Act and President Bush has signed it into law. It only waits for officials to implement it. On 11 January the EU demanded that promises Zimbabwe's Foreign Minister, Stan Mudenge, made at a meeting in Brussels be put in writing, signed and delivered by last Friday. He promised that the election would be free and fair, the international media would be allowed to cover it and observers would be invited to watch it. But no letter arrived and the EU too will probably slap similar sanctions on Mr Mugabe and his colleagues at the next meeting of ministers on 28 January. If the US and EU put the sanctions into effect too soon, they will be unable to send observers to the election. They want to be certain that it is going to be unfree and unfair before pulling the trigger.

Their last shot may be ineffective anyway. Stuck in the rhetoric of the liberation war, Mr Mugabe will dismiss the US and EU as neo-imperialists. Expulsion from the Commonwealth would, strangely, hurt him more; he likes the Commonwealth and its chummy meetings, and respects the verdict of some of his fellow leaders. They helped him in the struggle for Zimbabwe. Now Zimbabwe has been put on the agenda of the Ministerial Action Group, the body that deals with the bad boys. On 30 January the ministers will decide what to do and may well recommend suspension. That would mean Mr Mugabe could not go to the meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government in Australia on 2 March, a week before Zimbabwe's election.

The key country at the next Commonwealth meeting is Nigeria. Only Britain, Australia and New Zealand have so far come out in favour of suspending Zimbabwe. That sounds ominously like the old white Commonwealth uniting and may spark a reaction among African and Third World members to defend Zimbabwe. Nigeria's decision will be crucial. President Obasanjo tried to bring Zimbabwe and Britain together last September on the land issue and secured an agreement, but within a week Mr Mugabe tore it up and continued to seize white-owned farms. Mr Obasanjo is furious.

The only country capable of imposing effective economic sanctions on Zimbabwe is South Africa, but it faces a terrible dilemma. If it were to shut off fuel and electricity supplies, Zimbabwe would be closed down in days; but that might precipitate an exodus of tens of thousands of Zimbabweans seeking refuge in South Africa. Two other factors also make South Africa pause: most of its best farmland, as in Zimbabwe, is owned by whites, and if its poor blacks see their government punishing Mr Mugabe he might become their hero; secondly, Zimbabwe's opposition is neither clear nor united on what sanctions it wants.

Yet South Africa cannot allow Zimbabwe to fall into starvation, chaos and civil war; and the US has told the South Africans that if they want to be taken seriously they must sort out Zimbabwe.

Everything turns on the election, but it may not produce a clear result. In the Seventies the young commanders of the nationalist fighters in the bush made Mr Mugabe the leader of the liberation movement. Today they are the commanders of Zimbabwe's armed forces and their destiny is tied to his. Recently the chief of staff, General Vitalis Zvinavashe, said the armed forces could not accept a president who had not fought in the liberation struggle. That rules out Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition. If he wins and the army mounts a coup against him, the world will have to impose sanctions and intervene. But if there is no clear winner in a bad election, South Africa will be forced to act.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
people70-year-old was most famous for 'You are So Beautiful'
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballLatest score and Twitter updates
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
The US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'