Pressure mounts on Mugabe to establish coalition government

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The South African and Nigerian presidents are to make a fresh attempt to persuade Robert Mugabe to accept a government of national unity before a key Commonwealth meeting in London tomorrow.

But President Mugabe's defiant performance at his swearing-in yesterday made it clear he was in no mood to compromise before meeting the two presidents, who are attempting to avert a Commonwealth decision to suspend Zimbabwe from the 54-nation organisation.

The South African plan for a coalition government, to save Zimbabwe from plunging into anarchy after the controversial reelection of President Mugabe, was hatched with the backing of the United States and Britain.

President Mugabe rejected the plan last week at a meeting with the South African deputy president, Jacob Zuma. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which would be expected to join a unity government, is also cool.

But President Thabo Mbeki and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo are to make another attempt to persuade President Mugabe to end the post-election deadlock before heading to tomorrow's meeting.

South Africa and Nigeria are partners with Australia in a Commonwealth troika that will decide tomorrow whether to recognise the bitterly disputed elections. Britain and the US have warned they will not recognise the outcome of the election, which they said was a violation of democracy. The EU and US are weighing further sanctions against President Mugabe and his top aides.

The Commonwealth fudged a decision on suspending President Mugabe before the poll on 9 and 10 March, even though it was already clear the voter intimidation and disenfranchisement of thousands of Zimbabweans ruled out a free and fair poll. The Commonwealth observer mission concluded last week the vote was flawed.

A Nigerian official said yesterday it was unlikely President Obasanjo, a longtime ally of President Mugabe, would come out in favour of suspension.

"I can't see how our president will be there [in London] and allow Zimbabwe to be suspended from the Commonwealth," said an aide travelling with President Obasanjo.

"How do you suspend Zimbabwe when Pakistan carried out a coup and nothing was done?" he said, referring to the 1999 coup by the then Pakistani army chief Pervez Musharraf.

South Africa has yet to pronounce formally on the validity of the election, and there have been mixed signals from the government – and the South African observer mission. Mr Mbeki is president of the country that would be most affected by unrest and economic implosion in Zimbabwe.

Mr Mugabe made no direct reference to the coalition initiative yesterday, although he invited the MDC to cooperate with his ruling ZANU-PF.

"We call upon you all, including the MDC, to work with us as we deliberate in parliament, and outside parliament," he said. But his overture was dismissed by MDC secretary-general Welshman Ncube. "The few inklings of reconciliation appear to have been forced. Historically, he has resorted to intimidating, beating and murdering his opposition. I did not see any departure from this yesterday."