Secret deal paves way for Mugabe exit this year

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The Independent Online

Robert Mugabe will relinquish his leadership of Zimbabwe's ruling party by December, paving the way for his exit as President and new elections by June 2004, the South African President Thabo Mbeki has told George Bush.

The Independent has established that Mr Bush has pledged a reconstruction package for Zimbabwe worth up to $10bn (£6.2bn) over an unspecified timeframe, if a new leader takes over.

The deal was discussed by the two leaders during a private meeting in Pretoria last week.

Important differences remain: Washington is anxious to make the money conditional on the emergence of a new leader chosen by the Zimbabwe people in an election rather than an anointed successor from the ranks of the ruling party. Mr Mbeki by contrast, is not a supporter of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and is open to a successor emerging from the ruling party.

But the agreement that Mr Mugabe must go is a critical breakthrough in efforts to end Zimbabwe's political crisis. Mr Mbeki has been a close ally of the Zimbabwean President in the face of mounting international criticism over his human rights record and land seizure policies blamed for bringing the country to the brink of famine.

Mr Mbeki's assurance to Mr Bush that Mr Mugabe will stand aside is believed to be based on a personal promise extracted from the Zimbabwean leader.

Under the plan, he has promised to step down as leader of the ruling Zanu PF party at its annual congress in December as a first step. In practice, stepping down as head of Zanu's all-powerful Politburo means he would become a figurehead, since the Zimbabwe cabinet implements the policies formulated by the Politburo.

During his meeting with Mr Bush, Mr Mbeki asked the American President to avoid making statements openly critical of the 79-year-old Zimbabwe leader, which he fears could scupper the plan. Mr Bush said he would continue to speak out on human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

Mr Bush surprised Zimbabwe opposition figures when at a press conference after the Pretoria meeting he presented a united front with Mr Mbeki, and declared him the "point man" on Zimbabwe.

Privately Mr Bush is said to have exerted pressure on the South African President by indicating that South African companies would benefit from the aid package for Zimbabwe, since many of them would be well placed to bid for contracts. South African firms are owed huge amounts of money by Zimbabwe, mainly for fuel and electricity supplies.

Evidence that Mr Mugabe has promised to quit his party post in December is emerging from within the ruling party, where distinct factions are already vying to succeed him.

His favoured successor, the Speaker of Parliament, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has made public appearances seen as a careful attempt to market himself for the presidency.

Dumiso Dabengwa, an ex- home affairs minister and former adversary of Mugabe who later served in his cabinet, also emerged at the weekend to express his interest. The former finance minister Simba Makoni and the Special Affairs Minister, John Nkomo, are also in the succession race. Senior opposition officials from the MDC also met top US administration officials in Pretoria last week during Mr Bush's visit.