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.