Most reasonable people will be delighted with the breakthrough on Zimbabwe reached at the pre-Commonwealth summit talks in Abuja, Nigeria this week. They will be relieved that, after 18 terrible months during which more than 100 people have died and the country brought to near ruin, there is now the possibility that peace might return and crucial land reform proceed legally.
The deal will be welcomed by democrats who value the rule of law and believe that differences have to be resolved through mature, constructive dialogue. More relieved will be Zimbabwe's neighbours in southern Africa and Africans in general, because President Robert Mugabe's irrational behaviour during this period has been a major embarrassment at a time when African leaders desperately wanted to create a new, positive image for the continent.
In addition to causing further damage to the country's own ailing economy, the widespread harassment of opposition supporters and white farmers also stood to affect other countries in the region. Not only did it impact on neighbouring countries' investment prospects, but it directly affected South Africa's currency, with the rand's woes worsening each time the situation in Zimbabwe got uglier.
Terrible as it has been, the Zimbabwean crisis also offered African leaders an opportunity to demonstrate that they are serious when they talk about a new Africa which values democracy and is intolerant of dictatorships. It was an opportunity to show that they will no longer come to the defence of despots in their midst.
This they have done first by isolating Mr Mugabe at the last Organisation of African Unity summit in Zambia, and then at last month's Southern African Development Community meeting in Malawi, where they set up a high-powered committee of heads of states to liaise closely with Mr Mugabe and talk to all important players in his country with a view to helping restore peace and stability.
But will the agreement stick? Will Mr Mugabe honour the accord, and should the international community's attention now wander off to other trouble spots around the world, with Zimbabwe no longer a problem?
Obviously, Zimbabwe has a serious land problem, and Harare has been right to be concerned about it. There has never once been any question of that. That is why the news that Britain will finally honour its commitment to help Zimbabwe deal with its land problem is most welcome.
What has riled some of us has been the flagrant violation of human rights, the illegal land seizures and the rank opportunism of the Mugabe government, which suddenly remembered the land inequity once a new opposition party seriously challenged for power.
The chances are that the systematic targeting of white farmers will indeed cease following the Abuja agreement. After all, President Mugabe has now won a major public relations victory insofar as he will be able to argue, in the course of next year's presidential campaign, that he managed to force Britain and "other international donors" to finance land reform. He will no doubt boast, probably correctly, that such finance would not have been forthcoming had he not unleashed his "war veterans" on the farmers.
However, the chances of the other important things contained in the agreement being honoured are very slim. After all, Mr Mugabe's real problem has been neither whites nor land inequity. These were merely a sop to black Zimbabweans, most of whom are worse off today than they were at independence in 1980, to create the impression that he was concerned about their plight and was doing something about it.
Instead, the lawlessness of the past 18 months was a direct consequence of the coming onto the scene of a new party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which seriously challenged for power in a country where Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF was not used to opposition. That was the real problem. Hence the concerns correctly cited by the Commonwealth – the rule of law, respect for human rights, democracy and the economy – are unlikely to be addressed satisfactorily, especially since there is that crucial presidential poll in which Mr Mugabe will be challenged for the first time since he became president.
The young MDC gave Zanu-PF quite a scare in last year's parliamentary elections, and may even have won had there not been widespread intimidation. Mr Mugabe and his party will once again be tempted to resort to the same tricks to get him re-elected.
In the unlikely event that he tries to comply with all the implied conditions in the accord, Mr Mugabe might actually be hoist with his own petard. There is no guarantee that the so-called war veterans he encouraged to break the law will co-operate when he now tells them to desist from actions he applauded until this week. If he were then to play tough, getting them arrested for intimidating farmers or opposition supporters, they might well turn against him.
The international community, then, should continue to keep a watchful eye on events in Zimbabwe, and definitely send delegations at least three months before the presidential elections to monitor the situation.Reuse content