Richard Dowden: If the people want power, they must fight for it

It is clear that Tsvangirai's pleas to the rest of the world have failed

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While it was always a possibility that the Zimbabwean opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, would pull out of Friday's second round of the presidential election, when I met him in Harare three weeks ago it seemed unlikely. Then he was in a defiant mood, calling on Robert Mugabe to retire to ensure a peaceful transition and the establishment of a broad-based government. Having won a majority in the first round of the presidential election and, with other opposition parties, a majority of seats in parliament, Mr Tsvangirai sounded confident of victory. But he did not unequivocally commit to running and already the first floor of the headquarters of his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was crammed with thousands of people seeking sanctuary from Zanu-PF thugs. Many were swathed in bandages or plaster, nursing beaten faces and broken limbs.

Operation Mavhoterapapi (Who did you vote for?) was already under way. It was targeted at known MDC activists who were systematically and brutally beaten. About 80 are reported dead but the scale of the violence was national. Many had their identity cards destroyed or were driven from their areas, making it impossible for them to vote.

What no one knew was whether the nationwide, organised violence against suspected MDC voters would work. It was clear that a shocked Zanu-PF was making sure its own constituency would turn out as it failed to do in round one. But would MDC supporters risk their lives to turn out again to cast their ballots? Inspired by the brutality, would they defiantly march to the polling stations on 27 June? No one seemed sure but many people sensed that ordinary Zimbabweans might be cowed into staying at home and Mugabe might win. Mr Tsvangirai himself left the country immediately after the 29 March poll and stayed away for weeks.

No dictator in Africa has ever been driven out by a mass uprising. Outside intervention, coups, armed rebellions and even elections have provided their exits. It was always inconceivable that after the run-off, Mugabe would congratulate Mr Tsvangirai on his victory and politely step aside. So maybe Mr Tsvangirai was right to spare the lives of his supporters by pulling out.

But would he have strengthened his political and moral credibility by toughing it out? It is clear that Mr Tsvangirai's pleas to the rest of the world to sort out Zimbabwe have failed. If he wants power and the people of Zimbabwe want rid of tyranny and an end to impoverishment, they will have to suffer and fight for it. Taking refuge in the Dutch embassy like a dissident, as Mr Tsvangirai did yesterday, is not the mark of great leadership. The battle for power in Zimbabwe is still to be fought.

Assuming that on Saturday, Mugabe will celebrate winning 100 per cent of the vote, two factors now come into play. Firstly, the economy is barely alive. African economies do not die, they fade into subsistence. There are no buffers or precipices. But the government's ability to pay people to do its bidding is almost at an end. When I arrived, £1 was worth a billion Zimbabwean dollars. When I left it was two billion. Today £1 is worth 40 billion Zimbabwean dollars. What will happen when thousands of soldiers, policemen and spies have to start finding food rather than going to work for Mugabe? The government may have a monopoly of violence at the moment but, as the economy shrinks, so will the government's power to rule.

The second factor is the growing chorus of respected Africans who are speaking out against Mugabe. Presidents Levy Mwawanasa of Zambia and Ian Karma of Botswana have denounced him. Even former close allies like the former presidents of Mozambique and Tanzania, Joachim Chissano and Ben Mkapa, have been critical. So, incredibly, has President Eduardo dos Santos of Angola– a man who also does not believe in elections.

In a continent where African presidential solidarity is, in public at least, rock solid, do not underestimate the importance of these voices in removing Mugabe's legitimacy. Being made a pariah by Western countries is one thing; being made a pariah by other African rulers is something else.

Against this stands the rapidly diminishing figure of South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, already rejected by his own party and stepping down at the next election. His quiet diplomacy policy on Zimbabwe has failed and it is clear he has no alternative. He treats the crisis in Zimbabwe like a domestic row that needs a mediator, rather than a power struggle in which one side has cast aside any pretence of playing by the rules or restraint.

As his own power wanes, so will his ability to prevent other African leaders from taking on a leadership role on Zimbabwe. That is a necessary shift but, for the foreseeable future, it is in Zimbabwe itself that change will have to happen.

Richard Dowden is the director of the Royal African Society

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