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Leading article: Political reality in a shattered nation

Robert Mugabe's speech yesterday, as he finally signed a power-sharing agreement with the opposition party in Zimbabwe, would have been laughable had not its wild delusions been responsible for bringing one of Africa's most successful economies to its knees in the past decade, inflicting terrible suffering upon the ordinary people. It sounded like the speech of the leader of a country which had only just secured its independence, rather than one over which Mr Mugabe has ruled for 28 years, turning one of Africa's bread baskets into a nation unable to feed itself. No wonder there were jeers in the hall. By contrast, Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, announced that his hope for the future was greater than the grief he had for the suffering of the past years. His speech was entirely about the future.

It would, of course, have been better if Robert Mugabe had been persuaded to step down after his attempt to steal the last general election. But, given the political reality of a divided nation and an effective oppressive police state, that was unlikely to happen. Yesterday's deal is as much as a political realist could have expected.

There are a number of reasons to be optimistic. Morgan Tsvangirai appears to have secured a better deal than seemed possible just a few weeks ago. Mr Mugabe's attempt to buy off Arthur Mutambara – the leader of a breakaway faction of the MDC – collapsed when his own MPs failed to back Mr Mutambara. Splits in Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party have become apparent. Details of yesterday's deal have yet to emerge, but it seems that President Mugabe will remain in control of the army and the cabinet, while Prime Minister Tsvangirai will be in charge of the police and will preside over the Council of Ministers, which will take over day-to-day managment from the Cabinet.

The title of prime minister is a psychological advantage for Mr Tsvangirai since that post has, in both white and black eras, been the effective office of power in Zimbabwe. Mr Mugage will undoubtedly lay traps for the prime minister, much as he did for his political rival Joshua Nkomo three decades ago. But Africa is a different place today. Mr Mugabe's South African ally, Thabo Mbeki, is about to be replaced by the far less sympathetic figure of Jacob Zuma. Above all, the economy was not in crisis in the Nkomo era. Mr Tsvangirai's trump card is that only he can attract the foreign aid and investment needed to rescue Zimbabwe from its 11 million per cent inflation. The EU and Britain have already hinted at the lifting of sanctions and the flowing of aid if the new deal is put into practice.

That will not happen quickly. Donors will be on the watch for the old Mugabe tricks. But the momentum is with Morgan Tsvangirai. At the signing yesterday Mr Mugabe smiled, but only fleetingly. Mr Tsvangirai's grin was more expansive. It was sign of the way the tide of history is flowing.